The Research Council of Norway (NFR) recently launched the final framework for a new virtual and national centre for biotechnology – the Norwegian Centre for Digital Life (DLN) – which will maximise the utilisation of biotechnology across research disciplines.
NMBU is involved in three of the six new, large-scale research projects carried out in association with the centre and will be coordinating the project "Towards the Digital Salmon: From a reactive to a pre-emptive research strategy in aquaculture (DigiSal)." Each project will receive NFR-funding totalling 200 million Norwegian kroner over five years.
“This initiative will take Norwegian biotechnology further into the new digital era, opening up tremendous opportunities. The new National Centre for Digital Life will serve as a ‘lighthouse’ extending across research groups, institutions and sectors,” Director General of the Research Council Arvid Hallén said when the new initiative was launched.
Improved innovative power through interdisciplinarity
"NMBU and NTNU are the main partners in the DigiSal-project, with key contributions from the universities in Bergen (UIB) and Tromsø (UIT), the Norwegian Institute of Marine Research, the salmon breeding company AquaGen, the feed company EWOS and partners in the Netherlands and Scotland.
“DigiSal also benefits greatly from the merger between the former UMB and the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science in 2014, as the veterinary field has key expertise concerning microscopy and intestinal health, which are covered in this project," explained Project Coordinator Jon Olav Vik, who is a researcher at NMBU's Department of Animal and Aquacultural Sciences and Cigene (Centre for Integrative Genetics).
As a result, DigiSal's research team is highly interdisciplinary, and five of NMBU's departments, three at Campus Ås and two at Campus Adamstuen, have researchers participating in the project.
"In respect to both innovation and science, experts talking together across research disciplines provide stronger results," said the dean of NMBU's Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Biosciences, Øystein Lie, who coordinated NMBU's efforts with the DLN steering committee.
Sustainable salmon feed is important
The project will "establish a mathematical model for farmed salmon... that will be a useful tool for predicting the efficacy of various food compositions based on genetic information about the salmon," Aftenposten, Norway’s newspaper of record, wrote when the news was announced.
Vik pointed out that this is extremely important in order to feed farmed salmon in a sustainable manner.
He explained that the salmon is a predator by nature and until the turn of the millennium farmed salmon were fed a lot of fish flour and fish oil. But these resources are in low supply and farmed salmon now receive more than 70% of their fat and protein from plants instead.
In just ten years salmon feed has gone from containing around ten ingredients with a single source of protein and a single source of fat to more than thirty ingredients with multiple sources of protein and fat.
The price of feed commodities changes rapidly, and it is expensive and time-consuming to test new diets on fish. At the same time, plant based feed is not particularly sustainable if the plants used in the feed also is in demand for human food.
Aiming to gain a better understanding of the salmon body
NMBU's recently launched Centre for Research-based Innovation, Foods of Norway, is currently studying how livestock and salmon can eat new types of feed based on ingredients such as yeast, bacteria flour and microalgae. These are environmentally friendly and future-oriented animal feeds from natural resources that in themselves are unsuitable as food for human consumption.
But the new fish feeds have unknown and combined effects on the salmon body, which involve many organs as well as the bacterial flora in the fish intestines. There is also great hereditary variation in how well fish can utilise various feeds. In order to understand this complicated interaction we need not only to put mathematics and computers to use but also do large-scale feed studies and use advanced measuring methods.
"DigiSal seeks to understand the salmon body as a system, in other words as a functioning whole comprising components that influence one another and depend on one another. We will develop mathematical, targeted and simplified descriptions of the life processes in the components such as the intestines, liver and muscles to combine these in computerised simulations of the overall effect a given diet has on the salmon body," said Vik.
"This allows us to quickly test many different feeds using computers, and not least exclude a number of unsuitable alternatives without bothering the fish with them. The most promising alternatives must be proven through experiments in which traditional feed experiments are supplemented using laboratory cultivation of selected parts of the salmon body (e.g. thin slices of the liver). Over time we will develop a knowledge base regarding the link between feeding, genetics and physiology. This will enable the fish farming industry, feed manufacturers and salmon breeding companies to adapt more quickly to meet future challenges," he continued.
A watershed for NMBU
Vik pointed out that this is the first time the Research Council of Norway has called for proposals dedicated to system biology.
"It marks a watershed for NMBU as we aim to be a leader in the use of system biological working methods in production biology," Vik said.
He emphasised that system biology in itself is extremely interdisciplinary because each element of the biological system has its own experts, the measuring methodologies themselves require advanced equipment and expertise, mathematicians must analyse the data material in discussion with biologists and develop mathematical models and bio curators must systematise the evidence and make it machine-readable.
"DigiSal marks the start of a long-term vision for The Digital Salmon: A holistic mathematical representation of the salmon body that can be adjusted to reflect individuals with unique genetic make-up, breeding stocks, diseases, feed regimes or other scenarios.
"Strictly speaking it will not be one digital salmon but a collection of computerised models for various purposes with different simplifications and levels of detail. These will be linked to databases in which each variable has been named in a standardised manner so that they can be automatically linked upon request. The aim is for The Digital Salmon to be a shared project between industry and research, which will also contribute to the management of wild salmon," he concluded.