Here in East Anglia, we are familiar with agriculture – but what about aquaculture? Wilfried Haerty, group leader at the Earlham Institute at Norwich Research Park, explains how his work sequencing the genomes of tilapia fish is helping to provide sustainable food sources in the face of overfishing and climate change.

Each month, those working at the pioneering heart of Norwich Research Park tell us how their work is shaping the world we live in. Read their stories here.

What does your role entail?

I apply computational approaches to understand genetic evolution and diversity in organisms of interest for food security from pollinators, fishes and wheat. I lead a research group that works across those species, but our main focus is on the tilapia fish and aquaculture.

What is aquaculture?

Aquaculture is the practice of farming seafood including fish, shellfish and seaweed. For a long time, we have relied on wild capture, which has led to the depletion of fish stocks.

Human population levels are increasing, especially in Africa and Southeast Asia. We need to double our production capacity by 2050 to feed the world. This means producing more animal proteins. The way to do that is by farming it – effectively, by growing seafood.

Aquaculture is more sustainable for some species in both freshwater and seawater. For example, salmon, oysters, scallops and mussels can be farmed in seawater. Freshwater aquaculture focuses on carp, catfish, shrimp and tilapia.

Eastern Daily Press: Wilfried's group at the Earlham Institute collaborates with WorldFish to use sustainable aquaculture to reduce hunger and poverty in Africa, Asia and the Pacific regionWilfried's group at the Earlham Institute collaborates with WorldFish to use sustainable aquaculture to reduce hunger and poverty in Africa, Asia and the Pacific region (Image: Arabinda Mahapatra)

Why are you researching the tilapia fish?

Tilapia are cichlids, a tropical freshwater fish that feeds on plankton. There are about 50 species of tilapia, most of them native to East Africa. Tilapia are easy to grow but can hybridise easily leading to individuals with undesirable traits, or growth rate, which affects their market value and therefore the welfare of farmers in the developing world that grow them.

They are also sensitive to invasive species, so we are developing tools to characterise the different species, identify hybrids and find regions that would encourage natural populations to thrive, and help inform policies.

We collaborate with WorldFish, a non-profit research organisation, to use sustainable aquaculture to reduce hunger and poverty in Africa, Asia and the Pacific region. We also work with partners in Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Israel, Scotland, Sweden, the United States and the Netherlands.

How are you applying genomics to aquaculture?

One of the major issues in aquaculture farming is selecting genetic traits that will produce individuals that will be commercially marketable faster. So a major focus of genetic selection concerns growing speed. The genetically improved farmed tilapia (GIFT) is a strain of the tilapia species initiated by WorldFish in 1988 for rapid growth, which we are still researching.

Our other focus is on resilience. Climate is changing. Water availability is becoming a major issue. Water temperatures and oxygen levels are changing. New diseases are affecting tilapia. We are trying to understand the genetic basis of traits that make tilapia resilient to these changes to work out how can we breed those traits and build resilience to things like salinity and pathogens, as well as lower oxygen levels and higher temperatures.

We are laying the foundation of the selection process by generating the needed resources to identify the genetic bases of the traits of interest, giving breeders an understanding of the genes implicated in a specific trait and the toolkits to facilitate selection.

Why did you decide to pursue science as a career?

I was interested in nature as a child. My grandparents were farmers near Bourgueil on the River Loire in France, so I spent a lot of time outside getting acquainted with nature, ecology and biology. Science has always excited me.

In secondary school, I was lucky to have professors that were passionate about biology, which I studied for my undergraduate degree at the University of Angers. I completed my Masters in insect physiology and then a PhD in population genetics in Paris.

Afterwards, I focused on bioinformatics at the University of McMaster in Ontario followed by a postdoc in Oxford, which gave me the tools to move to Norwich in December 2015.

What is the best thing about working at Norwich Research Park?

People are always open to collaboration. Norwich Research Park is an integrated world where it is easy to cross boundaries between groups. We just had a publication accepted that never would have been possible without different groups working together across the Park.

I had never worked on plants before moving to Norwich, but my expertise in genomics meant I was able to contribute to work in plant science at the Earlham Institute but also across the Park with researchers at the John Innes Centre.

I first heard about Norwich Research Park when I was working in Ontario. People were speaking about the John Innes Centre, which is internationally recognised for its work in plant science and genetics. It’s an incredibly dynamic environment that is conducive to good research. It’s very exciting to be here.

What do you get up to when you are not working?

Excuse my Frenchness, but I like to cook. Before I moved away from France, I had not been exposed to Chinese, Indian, Thai or Japanese food. Moving abroad opened up all these different cuisines which I absolutely love.

Some friends have helped me discover more of Norwich and Norfolk including the beautiful gardens, the coast and, of course, the pubs!

Dr Wilfried Haerty is group leader at the Earlham Institute on Norwich Research Park. You can follow him on Twitter @WHaerty