Honors Gallery

Development of disease-resistant tilapia by USDA-led team boosts aquaculture profits

Award: Impact Award

Year: 2023

Award Type: National



The problem being solved: Aquaculture-raised (or “farmed”) tilapia is an industry valued at more than $11 billion worldwide. Diseases are the largest source of financial losses for fish farmers, and three major bacterial diseases affecting tilapia account for more than $1 billion in losses globally. Methods used historically to prevent and control these diseases have limitations. Vaccines are expensive and often difficult to administer to young fish; antibiotics are also costly and must be carefully used due to the potential for contributing to antimicrobial resistance. 

The technology solution: Since 2014, scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Aquatic Animal Health Research Unit have worked with industry partners Spring Genetics and Benchmark Genetics Norway to collect data on tilapia, including which fish survive and survival time, in studying genetic variability in disease resistance and how it is passed on to future generations. The work has also involved the search for informative genetic markers associated with disease resistance traits. The knowledge generated from this research is being used to implement a selective breeding strategy in which the best-performing tilapia are mated to produce disease-resistant offspring. The findings also have contributed to the development of Benchmark’s Spring Tilapia® strain, which is much less likely than conventional tilapia to become infected. Furthermore, a genetic marker associated with resistance to one of the diseases investigated was identified, facilitating genetic selection without the need to infect fish with the bacteria. 

The tech transfer mechanisms: In September 2014, a one-year Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) was executed with the two industry partners to begin discussions about a selective breeding project, followed by a five-year MTA-Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (MTA-CRADA) in 2015. In 2021, a Material Transfer Research Agreement expanded the initiative for three years, including research on specific mechanisms that contribute to disease resistance in the selected fish.  

The impact: Spring Tilapia® are being produced and sold on four continents and account for about 30% of the tilapia produced in the U.S. Assuming that switching to the new strain results in 5% more fish surviving until harvest (a conservative estimate), calculations show that for a farm with an annual production of 5000 tons, this may generate up to $120 additional revenue per ton produced. Spring Tilapia® farmers may also save substantial costs related to use of antibiotics. The new strain will improve food security, particularly in developing countries, and create job opportunities. By reducing the occurrence of disease and the need for antibiotics, Spring Tilapia are contributing to a more sustainable and environmentally friendly industry. 

Team Members:

Benjamin Beck, Benjamin LaFrentz, Carlos Lozano, Jose Ospina-Arango, Morten Rye, Craig Shoemaker, Sergio Vela

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