Award-winning Aussie grad student develops digital tool to cut fish-farm fatalities

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Fish farm, North  West Bay, Tasmania: Gomes' early detection tool promises to help fish farmers around the world control costly disease outbreaks quickly.
Fish farm, North West Bay, Tasmania: Gomes' early detection tool promises to help fish farmers around the world control costly disease outbreaks quickly.
Daniel Patman, Flickr CC

The aquaculture industry, worth 100 billion US dollars a year globally, is now the fastest-growing sector in agriculture. With a staggering 40 percent of global aquaculture production lost to disease, it’s not surprising that Giana Bastos Gomes’ groundbreaking research, aimed at preventing disease outbreaks in farmed fish, garnered the highest recognition at ABARES’ recent national annual awards night for innovators and researchers.

Gomes received the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources’  coveted Minister’s Award, part of the 2016 Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, at ABARES Outlook 2016 conference dinner in March. 

A PhD candidate at James Cook University’s Centre for Sustainable Tropical Fisheries and Aquaculture in Townsville, Gomes was one of 12 recipients on the night, netting the Fisheries Research & Development Corporation Award and $22,000 grant and an additional $22,000 as recipient of the night’s highest honour, the Minister’s Award.

Gomes said the funding will help her to refine and test the new tool, which she describes as “a DNA-based point-of-care (PoCT) digital device [to] detect and quantify the genetic material – in this case, fish parasites – using a low-cost, portable and simple technology”.

Dr Giana Bastos Gomes, aka 'the Fish Vet', netted a brace of Science and Innovation awards in 2016 for her work on early pathogen detection in aquaculture.
Dr Giana Bastos Gomes, aka 'the Fish Vet', netted a brace of Science and Innovation awards in 2016 for her work on early pathogen detection in aquaculture.
wavma.org

The benefits of on-site analysis

More than a decade of watching devastated aquaculture farmers lose their fish to disease inspired veterinary-trained Gomes to turn her attention to finding fast, reliably precise ways for producers to identify diseases on-farm before such catastrophic outbreaks occur.

"The traditional way to detect disease in aquaculture is to collect samples and send them away to a laboratory," Brazilian-born Gomes explains.

"One of the problems is that usually, farms are in isolated or rural areas far away from centres where the diagnostic laboratories are, so usually the results take too long."

In a bid to solve the problem, Gomes is working on developing a digital device that allows farmers to detect diseases in the water. She hopes that with the aid of the DNA detection tool, aquaculture producers will be able to identify the type and quantity of pathogens found in their facilities, avoid time-consuming waits while samples are analysed off-site.

The advantage for farmers is that with such a tool, they’ll be able to diagnose problems quickly and treat their fish promptly – before they show signs of infection.  

"Disease in aquaculture is certainly different from terrestrial animals," Gomes says. "As the animals are under the water, we don't see much until they really show signs of real problems."

"Once the fish are infected, the spread of pathogens is very fast... the animals can't breathe and they stop eating and then start dying very quickly."

Farmed tilapia in Jessore, Bangladesh.
Farmed tilapia in Jessore, Bangladesh.
Yousuf Tushar, WorldFish, Flickr CC
Gomes’ farmer-friendly pathogen-detection kit

Marine fish white spot parasite and freshwater fish spot parasite are the focus of Gomes’ current work in developing detection tools, she intends to look at farmed barramundi in the future.

The device Gomes is developing will detect freshwater (Ichthyophthirius multifiliis) and saltwater (Cryptocaryon irritans) ciliate parasites that cause fish White Spot disease

She says the PoCT technologies have been researched extensively and are already used in human medicine, particularly as a means of detecting diseases in remote areas.

“Aquaculture farms generally are located in remote areas, which makes this kind of technology ideal,” Gomes explains. “Having this early detection tool on-farm will accelerate farmers’ response to possible fish infections, and reduce consequent economic loss.”

In the first instance, Gomes’ detection kit will be trialled in farmed barramundi, she says. “But once the technology has been developed, then it will be possible to detect pathogens from many other aquaculture species.”

With millions of farmed fish lost to disease every year, Gomes’ research in this area is timely. The recognition and additional funding accorded her by netting the Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources’ award is enabling her to fast-track the research.

Within three years, Gomes aims to have a prototype parasite detection kit ready to be tested on farms.

The federal government’s Science and Innovation Awards are aimed at encouraging science, innovation and technology in rural industries and helping to advance the careers of young scientists and innovators through national recognition of their research ideas. Already, the Science Awards have helped more than 200 young Australians make their ideas a reality and showcase their talent to the world.

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