WPI Professor Puts the Finger(print) on Superior Shrimp

Contact: WPI Media Relations, 508-831-5616

WORCESTER, Mass. -- You know that old saw, truth is stranger than fiction? Try this one: Although WPI is located in Central Massachusetts, more than 40 miles from the briny deep, it is on the cutting edge of research in shrimp genetics. The proof is in the pudding: WPI was recently awarded a patent for "A Method of Identifying Genetically Superior Shrimp."

The patent is for the use of a variety of DNA sequences for DNA typing. Targeted to the aqua-culture industry, in this case the controlled environments of commercial shrimp hatcheries and shrimp farms where only superior shrimp will be selected to breed, it is based on research conducted by WPI biology and biotechnology Professor Joseph C. Bagshaw of Holden, Mass., and Michael A. Buckholt, who received his Ph.D. in biomedical sciences in 1992 and assisted with the research as part of his postdoctoral studies. Buckholt is currently a research assistant professor at Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine in North Grafton, Mass.

Bagshaw, who has been studying crustacean molecular biology for more than 25 years, is known as one of the top experts in his field. "It was easy for me to leap over into the study of commercially valuable species, such as shrimp," he says. "If you don't count canned tuna, shrimp is the most prized and most purchased seafood in every part of this country, it even outsells lobsters here in New England. Shrimp sales contribute about $4 billion each year to our trade deficit-the largest single food item, by far-and it's important that shrimp be developed genetically so that they can be selectively bred according to size, hardiness, taste and fertility."

In his laboratory, Bagshaw studies a sheet of film that contains markings that look like bar codes>each one a little different from the others. Using a DNA "fingerprint" typing method similar to that used in human forensic and diagnostic applications, he searches for differences among individual shrimp. "We have dozens of cloned genes we can use," he explains. "If we can correlate any of these genes with a favorable growth trait, we will be able to provide the hatchery manager with tools for selecting broodstock that might produce faster-growing or disease-resistant shrimp for the farmer."

This could be especially good news for Americans and Japanese, who consume millions of pounds of shrimp each year-and who prefer the prized Penaeus vannamei, which is raised in warm waters.

"Shrimp farmers face unique challenges," adds Bagshaw. "While selective breeding is relatively new to the shrimp industry, it is common throughout agriculture. Cattle breeders, for example, have known for generations how to judge the best characteristics of their animals. They can identify the traits they want emphasized in their herds by looking at them and also by tracing their bloodlines. When it comes to shrimp, these traditional methods are virtually impossible. The solution is aquaculture."

There are currently no cut-and-dried guidelines on how to pinpoint the best individual shrimp traits; Bagshaw's research and the WPI patent are steps in the right direction. Despite its sweeping scope, the patent will not stifle research on shrimp genetics, says Bagshaw. "In fact, we are willing and eager to share our technology with researchers everywhere. What we want to protect with this patent is the commercial use of the technology in the private sector." At present, only one tenth of one percent of shrimp are produced by aquaculturists in the United States, he reports.

While geography and economics will prevent the United States from ever becoming a major producer of marine shrimp by aquaculture and the nation will never have a trade surplus in shrimp, "it can be the world leader in the development of genetically superior strains that will allow the shrimp farmer to produce more and better shrimp." If and when healthier, disease-resistant shrimp are developed through the use of Bagshaw's DNA-marking method, the output from these American farms, as well as that from the many farms located nearer the Equator, could increase dramatically.

"There is an urgent need to expand shrimp aquaculture," he says. "We should quadruple aquaculture immediately simply to maintain our current shrimp supply. If the output remains what it is today, the cost of shrimp will soon skyrocket to $20 a pound."

Bagshaw continues his leadership role in shrimp genetics at WPI and envisions that his work will eventually serve as a sparkplug to the shrimp industry. "At this point in our research we need to find out which genetic markers are actually useful," he notes. "We need to link up with a research laboratory or private sector entity that is willing to put some time, effort and money into this venture. If we succeed in identifying the right markers, those who share the load with us will reap the reward."

For additional information, call 508-831-5930 or e-mail jbagshaw@wpi.edu.

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