Introducing a Benchmark Innovator: Ingunn Thorland

Ingunn Thorland, Senior Scientific Adviser at Benchmark Genetics Norway (formerly: Akvaforsk Genetics) has been with the company since 2001, working on projects involving six different species and all manner of traits.

Ingunn Thorland

What drew you to work in the aquaculture sector?

My favourite subjects were mathematics and biology and my masters thesis was on the genetic interaction between escaped farmed and wild salmon, which was my first contact with aquaculture. In order to write the thesis I had to study the basic subjects in aquaculture – almost every aquaculture lecture was held by the person who’d done the most advanced research in their field. They were very enthusiastic and made me realise how important the industry is to Norway.

During my final summer holiday I worked at Stolt Seafarms for three months, to get some practical experience of farming. This has been useful as it’s helped me to understand some of the challenges faced by the industry. My initial plan was to work with wild species after graduation. However, after getting to know the aquaculture industry from lectures and hands-on experience at the farm, I ended up applying for jobs in both the conservation and aquaculture sectors.

Why did you decide to focus on genetics?

Combining mathematics and statistics with biology and aquaculture during my undergraduate studies, led me to focus on fish genetics for my masters. While I was finishing this, in 2001, I was headhunted by Akvaforsk Genetics, who initially gave me a role in SalmoBreed’s breeding program. I spent much of my first year out with the salmon producers, collecting data on fish performance which I later analyzed, but then increasingly moved into pure analysis and transforming genetic values into criteria for applied selection.

What projects are you most proud of?

I’m proud of many projects, in particular being a part of one of the world’s first family-based breeding programmes on seabass and sea bream, which we began in 2002 and 2004 respectively. To be involved in something from the start is very interesting and we’ve managed to improve the growth rates of these species in a sustainable way, as well as control inbreeding. More recently, in particular for sea bass, we’ve been improving robustness too, and are focusing on disease resistance as well as some quality traits for Nireus (now Avramar) – one of the world’s biggest bass and bream producers.

In salmon, additional to improved growth, we have shown – through several generations of selection – that there are positive genetic trends developed for resistance to ISA, PD, lice and IPN, whereby the population is getting increasingly robust against these disease and parasite challenges. When we started to work with PD resistance, for example, in 2011 we managed to document a 49 percent contrast between offspring from the most and least resistant groups after only one year of selection. Family values ranged from 0 to 100 percent survival rates and offspring from the least and most resistant selected parents came out with respective survival rates of 24 and 73 percent, which was a wonderful result.

Ingunn working with people in Nireus breeding program in Greece.

How do you think your work will influence the development of the aquaculture industry?

I think sustainable breeding programs are hugely important and that family-based breeding programs are much more sustainable than mass selection – in which farmers only breed from the biggest fish, for example – in the long run. This is because, in addition to achieving genetic improvement for several traits, family-based selection programs also allow us to prevent large increases of inbreeding.

It’s also important that we think of maintaining many different traits within any breeding nucleus – the market might be pushing for a particular trait at one point, but we have to think broadly in order to ensure a long-term sustainable future. For example, in the salmon selection program from Lid, we have been working with several robustness and quality traits – we have to combine them, in the core breeding nucleus we can’t only focus on improving one trait. On the other hand, a commercial market-driven product strongly selected for one or a few traits in the multiplier level can emerge from the nucleus.

What key skills do you need in your current role?

The most important is to apply your calculated values into real breeding work. Experience is also important – I’ve been working with six different species, and many different traits, for a number of years. Mathematics/statistics, for the programming, is also crucial – as long as you can apply your values.

What’s the secret to being able to apply your results?

You need to communicate clearly with all the people involved in any project – scientific colleagues, decision makers and farmers with a lot of hands-on experience (such as hatchery managers) – in order to get the calculated values used in applied breeding at the right time. You also need an understanding of when and what is needed and to work in a team – you can’t do everything yourself.

How do you retain the enthusiasm for your work on a daily basis?

I’m not so much into basic research – seeing the practical benefits of my work is very satisfying. I also like to learn more about the theoretical part of genetics, and being in a team that has people with so many different skills in so many different genetic fields makes it possible to learn and understand new and emerging techniques. The world is changing and we learn new things every year.

Ingunn securing field data from Nireus breeding program in Greece.

How do you think Benchmark Genetics/ Akvaforsk Genetics differs from other companies in the same field?

We’re quite a large group of geneticists and come with lots of skills. Some of our senior members have been here since the start of breeding programs in salmon in the 1970s, while the younger people, some of whom are still working on their Ph.Ds, bring knowledge of all the latest techniques to the table.

We’ve also worked with a lot of species, a lot of traits and a lot of different production systems, which gives us a broad range of experience.

After we became a part of Benchmark (2015) and merger with SalmoBreed in 2019 we have also got experienced colleagues directly involved in production and sales of genetically improved material (salmon eggs, tilapia, shrimp), advanced nutrition and fish health.

How has your job changed over time?

My calculations are still very much done using traditional quantitative methods, but molecular, genomic tools are increasingly being used and we now combine the two. Different techniques work for different traits, so a combination of techniques is best.

Traditionally, quantitative geneticists didn’t look much at the molecular part, but worked more statistically – we look at the phenotype and link it to the pedigree. Molecular geneticists look directly into the DNA, and in my opinion the big change came when geneticists combined the two techniques in applying genomic selection, as some of my colleagues are capable of doing. Although I don’t calculate genomic values myself, I’m involved in applying them to the overall system and getting the results out there.

What genetic techniques do you feel have the greatest potential to improve the aquaculture  industry?

The key thing is that we don’t concentrate on only one technique, you have to look at the genetic architecture of each trait and investigate it using the best combination of tools. However, it’s still important to look into emerging techniques such as gene editing – it’s still at an early phase of development in aquaculture and I don’t think it will be used for all traits, but for some specific traits it could be very useful, within 10 years, if legislation allows.

Ingunn visiting hatchery in Greece.

What challenges in the sector would you most like to overcome?

I think it’s very important to minimize the environmental footprint of the industry – it’s a big industry and we need to work sustainably – but that involves working on many different genetic factors: from improving feed utilization to increasing sea louse resistance.

How does it feel when your hard work behind the scenes is translated into practical benefits for millions of fish – and the people whose livelihoods they support – in the aquaculture industry?

Twenty years ago many farmers – of, for instance, sea bass and sea bream – were skeptical about the value of family-based breeding programs. Many had no experience of using breeding programs and starting new projects meant extra work for them, as they needed to record the performance of the fish. However, after a few years, they’ve really seen the progress that’s been made and many come back to us with positive stories, which is really rewarding and confirms that we’ve done something right.

How do you like to spend your time off?

I try to spend as much time as possible with my family and, ideally, combine this with year-round outdoor life – hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. Having the mountains and the sea both so close is why I like living here in Sunndalsøra rather than a city.

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