Environmental Protection

USC Researcher Grows Oysters as a Future Food

On a coastal flat in the Pacific Northwest, along the quiet eastern edge of the Olympic Peninsula, marine biologists from the University of Southern California are pinning their hopes on the quest for bigger and faster-growing oysters.

Oyster breeding is just one example of research projects at the USC Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies in USC's College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

Oysters pack huge amounts of protein, along with an alphabet soup of vitamins, lots of omega-3 fatty acids and hefty doses of minerals: calcium, iodine, iron, potassium, copper, sodium, zinc, phosphorous, manganese and sulfur, all in one low-calorie package.

For marine biologists who wonder where humanity will find the next great meal, the oyster ranks high on the list of prospects. It is flavorful and exhibits a property known as hybrid vigor that could turn them into the Corn of the Sea.

"If you look globally, the untapped potential of producing more food from the oceans is enormous," adds Hauke Kite-Powell, a research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

In a few years, says Donal Manahan, director of the Wrigley Institute, the world catch of farmed fish will surpass the wild-caught total for the first time in history. The most recent statistics show that in 2007, aquaculture supplied 42 percent of fish consumed worldwide. In the next year or two, that should hit 50 percent.

Experiments performed by David Hutchins, another marine biologist in USC College, predict that ocean warming will shift the food web in the Arctic toward smaller organisms, reducing the food supply for the major commercial fish.

"It doesn't look good up there," Hutchins says. "It looks like the food chain is changing in a way that is not supporting these top predators, of which of course we're the biggest top predator. There is some question as to how much of that is due to over-fishing and how much of that is due to climate shifts; probably they're both involved."

Manahan's and fellow USC Wrigley Professor Dennis Hedgecock's interest in oysters was prompted by a curious observation: Unlike any farmed animal, oysters exhibit hybrid vigor. If different strains are inbred—forced to cross with themselves—the offspring look predictably small and withered. But cross two different inbred strains, and their offspring sometimes explode in size, outgrowing not just their inbred parents, but also their vigorous grandparents.

Hedgecock is sure that oysters have hybrid vigor. To demonstrate hybrid vigor in oysters, Hedgecock has bred hundreds of millions of baby oysters, and found a commercial farm willing to grow them. His lab's research caught the eye of Joth Davis, head of research and development at Taylor Shellfish Farms, located on the bays and inlets of Washington's Puget Sound.

Few farms have their own R&D department. But Taylor, one of the world's largest growers of shellfish, is also one of the most progressive. Currently the operation is testing three varieties and focusing on one. "This particular hybrid cross is great," Davis says. Having watched the lab specimens grow bigger faster, he expects the harvest, due in 2011, to fulfill its promise.

Taylor plans to sell the 5 to 8 million mature oysters that result from the project, keep 90 percent of the seed for in-house breeding, and offer the rest to other growers. "We can't just sit here and do nothing." Manahan said. "What's going on now is an infinitesimal drop in the ocean of what will happen if there's a climate shift. You think the cost of food is expensive now? Wait until rainfall patterns in the Midwest change."

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