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article imageGenetic research turning Tilapia into a major global commodity Special

By Igor I. Solar     Apr 25, 2011 in Science
Penang - Enhanced production through genetic improvement has converted Tilapia, also known as the “wonder fish”, in the second most cultured aquatic animal species in the world after carps, and a major internationally traded commodity.
African origin
The evolutionary origin of Tilapias has been traced to the waters of Sub-Sahara West Africa and the African Great Lakes along the Great Rift Valley which runs from north to south through the eastern side of the African continent. The Valley includes some of the largest water resources of Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania. There are over 30 important lakes in the Great Rift Valley, but the largest ones are Lake Malawi and Lake Tanganyika, which along with Lake Victoria form the major basin of the White Nile River, the main tributary of the Nile, the longest river in the world. The oldest fossils of tilapia ancestors found in Africa date from about 18 million years.
Tilapia, “the miracle fish”
Egyptians have been culturing this freshwater fish for over 4,000 years. Clearly identifiable images of tilapias appear among ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
The fish “with a coin in its mouth” mentioned in Mathew 17:27 is said to have been a tilapia and is the source of tilapia’s nickname as “St. Peter’s fish”. The account tells of Jesus and Peter, on arrival to Capernaum on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, having been asked to pay Temple Tax, they paid it by obtaining the money from the mouth of a fish: “However, we don't want to offend them, so go down to the lake and throw in a line. Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a large silver coin. Take it and pay the tax for both of us."
Production and markets
There are about 70 species of tilapia, of which 9 have been used for commercial production. There has been great effort in identifying and systematizing the classification of these fishes which is highly complex mostly because they are ancient fish with a great affinity for hybridization. Tilapia has been introduced for culture to practically every
Tilapia
Tilapia
Michael Rupert
continent with exception of Antarctica. The best known and the most widely cultured species is the Nile Tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus). The Nile Tilapia is produced in about 85 countries around the world. About 98 percent of all tilapias cultured in the world belong to this species or to some of its hybrids with a closely related species, the Blue tilapia (O. aureus).
In 2010 the total production of cultured tilapia was about 2.8 million metric tonnes, representing an increase of about 730 percent relative to production of 1990. The value of tilapia products in 2010 reached about US$ 2.5 billion. Most of the output of cultured tilapia comes from China and Egypt with 42 and 14 percent, respectively. Other important tilapia producers in Asia are Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia, while the major producers in Latin America are Mexico, Brazil and Colombia.
The main market for cultured tilapias is the United States. The importation of tilapia in the USA, mostly fresh and frozen fillets, has increased from about 40 thousand tonnes in 2000 to over 215,000 tonnes in 2010. Other important markets, especially for tilapia produced in China, are Mexico and Russia.
Tilapias are also produced in Canada. Farms for tilapia culture using heated water in indoor tanks exist in British Columbia and Alberta. Toronto is the largest market for live tilapia in North America. Other important markets for Canadian-produced live tilapia are Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton.
In the United States tilapia is cultured in several states including Arizona, Texas and California, however most tilapia growing operations are located in Idaho and use greenhouses, industrial waste heat or geothermal water resources in recirculating systems to produce live tilapia most of which supplies the demand of the large Asian population living in Vancouver.
GIFT – Genetically improved farmed tilapia
The Genetically Improved Farmed Tilapia project (GIFT) was an international research and development project coordinated and executed in the Philippines from 1988 to 1997 by ICLARM (International Center for Living Aquatic Resources Management) and partners from Norway and the Philippines. In 2000, ICLARM became The WoldFish Center (WFC) and is now based in Penang, Malaysia. The mission of WFC is to reduce poverty and hunger by improving fisheries and aquaculture and its activities are designed to meet the objectives of the United Nations' Millenium Development Goals.
The WorldFish Center  Penang  Malaysia.
The WorldFish Center, Penang, Malaysia.
The immediate objectives of the GIFT program were to develop improved breeds of Nile tilapia for culture, to increase the capacity in aquaculture genetics research to assist in the development of national breeding programs and to disseminate the GIFT fish while promoting environment-friendly fish farming practices.
The GIFT program is considered one of the success stories of aquaculture development in Asia. The genetic improvement of tilapia, using traditional selection and breeding methods, resulted in a cumulative gain of 85% in growth performance in relation to the base population in 5 generations.
WFC - Tilapia breeding facility  Penang  Malaysia. Small netpens for culture of tilapia families.
WFC - Tilapia breeding facility, Penang, Malaysia. Small netpens for culture of tilapia families.
WFC - Tilapia breeding facility  Penang  Malaysia. Netpens for culture of tilapia families.
WFC - Tilapia breeding facility, Penang, Malaysia. Netpens for culture of tilapia families.
The GIFT strain has been disseminated to Bangladesh, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, the Fiji Islands, India, Indonesia, Kenya, Laos, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, China, Thailand and Vietnam. Fish derived from the GIFT strain have also been introduced in Brazil and Costa Rica.
Since 1997, after the end of the GIFT programme, several parallel breeding programmes based on fish derived from the GIFT project continued. One of these on-going projects is the work being carried out by the WorldFish Center in Malaysia using fish derived from the sixth generation of the GIFT strain.
Adult tilapia broodfish in a tank.
Adult tilapia broodfish in a tank.
This reporter visited the WorldFish Center and a GIFT breeding station in Penang, Malaysia, and had the opportunity to obtain first-hand information on the significance and impact of the GIFT program in the development of aquaculture activities in Asia and the production of genetically improved tilapia for international markets.
Juvenile tilapia siblings anaesthetized for individual marking.
Juvenile tilapia siblings anaesthetized for individual marking.
Juvenile tilapia receiving microchip implant for individual identification.
Juvenile tilapia receiving microchip implant for individual identification.
Tilapia Genome Project
The sequencing of the complete genome of the Nile tilapia was recently announced. Tilapia is the first species of commercially cultured fish having its genome sequenced. The genetic work was carried out by the Broad Institute of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and The University of Harvard, in cooperation with a consortium integrated by several research institutions from around the world.
Knowledge of the tilapia genome sequence is expected to facilitate the identification of genes controlling the expression of economically important traits such as disease resistance, growth rate and sex determination. This information could be rapidly incorporated into selective breeding programs through marker-assisted selection for the development of superior domesticated strains. Furthermore, it is expected that the sequence of the tilapia genome would allow for better characterization of the genetic diversity of wild populations allowing for the rational incorporation of this diversity into commercial populations.
The detailed information on the genome of the Nile tilapia is available to the scientific community and the public at the USA’s National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).
More about Tilapia, Tilapia breeding, Genetic research, Fish culture, Genome research
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