Disease can wipe out an oyster population in a single day, which can mean ruin for small oyster farmers and hurt for the surrounding rural communities.
Now, research by Professor David Raftos and researchers at Macquarie University promises disease protection for entire populations of oyster.
Working with oyster farmers along Australia’s east coast, Professor Raftos has already helped breed stronger, more disease-resistant oysters that promise a 10 to 20 per cent increase in yield for this $200 million industry.
For work safeguarding and improving Australia’s iconic oyster industry, Professor Raftos has been awarded the new Rural Research and Development Corporations Eureka Prize for Rural Innovation.
“The work of Professor Raftos and his team allows us to understand and prevent diseases that can kill millions of oysters in a single outbreak,” Kim McKay AO, Executive Director and CEO of the Australian Museum said. “It’s great news for industry and oyster lovers alike!”
The next step may be to immunise entire crops of oysters against a particular virus. The team’s results show that immunising one oyster also protects its descendants. Potentially, immunising just a few oysters could create a population of disease-resistant offspring.
An unexpected result from the work was that the new disease-proofed oysters were also less susceptible to climate change. After initially filing this in the ‘weird things happen’ box, Professor Raftos has now determined that the oysters selected for their better capacity to switch on infection-fighting genes are also better able to cope with environmental stresses. By disease proofing Australia’s oysters, the team is also protecting them against the warming climate.
It’s a project that’s seen Professor Raftos talking to oyster farmers up and down the east coast of Australia about what works and what doesn’t, sharing yarns and the occasional beer with experienced oyster farmers.
The farmers’ interest in the work is understandable. Past viral outbreaks have killed millions of oysters in a single day and led to the permanent collapse of oyster farming businesses, with an associated loss of jobs and income in the surrounding rural communities.
If his selective-breeding approach works for Sydney rock oysters, Professor Raftos expects it will also work for other farmed marine creatures, from other oyster varieties to abalone and prawns.