‘Moving forward into genomic selection’

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Hendrix Genetics, headquartered in the Netherlands, is one of the leading players in aquaculture genetics, due to strategic acquisitions and organic growth.

Hendrix Genetics, founded in 2005, is active in multispecies animal genetics and breeding. In 2011 the company moved into aquaculture. Managing Director Aquaculture Neil Manchester joined Hendrix Genetics by acquisition of his former company, Scottish salmon breeder Landcatch. Manchester, who has a degree in Aquaculture from the Harper Adams University (UK), has worked in aquaculture in Scotland since 1985, at that time focussing on rainbow trout. Landcatch had set up a program of egg production in Chile in the mid 1990.

“At that time, we were pioneers in genetic technology and in salmon breeding. Export was booming. In 2000 we were responsible for 1 percent of Chiles entire import market. Quite significant. But in 2007 ISA hit Chile, and they closed the borders to imported eggs. That killed off our export business. But we maintained the breeding program and continued the R & D work in Chile.”

Landcatch’ former shareholders wanted to move away from salmon farming. In 2009 the Chilean company was sold and in 2011 Hendrix Genetics stepped in and bought the Scottish base of Landcatch, including all operations in Scotland, the team of geneticists and the R& D programme. “We always say: we had a Ford engine and Hendrix Genetics replaced it by a Lamborghini engine. Which allowed an acceleration of the breeding program and upgrade of our breeding facilities.”

“For Landcatch, to be acquired by one of the worlds’ leading breeding companies was an absolute gift,” he continues. “Hendrix Genetics recognized the potential in aquaculture and gave our business unit the chance to expand and develop. From the onset one of our objectives was to get back into Chile.”

Trout breeding
This opportunity opened up when Troutlodge joined Hendrix Genetics. Troutlodge, world leader in trout egg production based in the US, had a breeding facility in Chile. “Next to that, we gained access to the genetic salmon material of four generations, developed by Landcatch, because our customers were still working with that material, in Chile. We built an entire new aquaculture breeding centre. That allowed us to make a flying start in egg production of our own strains, and be back in business in a very short time. We restarted in Chile in 2014 and are now in the forefront of salmon breeding.”

The acquisition of Landcatch was the first entry in aquaculture for Hendrix Genetics. “It was meant as window in the world of aquaculture, to see where we could go,” Manchester explains. “In 2015 we formed our aquaculture business unit, with the ambition to develop and expand globally and in different species.”

Manchester moved to The Netherlands in 2015. “We have a core management team and R&D team based here now, and are engaged in acquisition and business development in different aquaculture species around the word.”

Hendrix Genetics’ ambition is to be a world leader in aquaculture genetics, says Manchester. “That sounds grand, but fits in with the general ambition of HG to be a world leader in animal genetics.”

DNA fingerprints
Landcatch was the first company to identify certain gene markers on salmon DNA for IPN virus, Manchester continues. “In the early days we did mass selection: best or biggest male, plus female, to produce the best offspring. But this is not very accurate as you only consider a few selection traits. Then we started with family selection, based on DNA fingerprint, to select more accurately on multiple traits. But that was not enough, so we moved to gene markers, to select on individual performance, to find individuals that perform on a top level.”

Recenlty, Hendrix Genetics moved forward into genomic selection. “With GS, you are looking at thousands of base pairs of genes, which gives far more accurate selection as the performance on a specific trait is influenced by many genes and rarely by a single gene marker. You can sample, take DNA fingerprint and select the individual fish most favourable for the traits you want improve, using the DNA information of the fish. We have identified a number of relevant ‘snips’, differences in DNA between siblings with a certain effect on performance traits. And the fish with favourable genes are the ones we select for reproduction and monitor the offspring constantly to validate the effectiveness of our selection.”

The acquisition of Troutlodge made genomic research also possible for trout. “The costs of genomics are high, so normally this technique could not be used on a lower value species like trout. But because of the synergy in Hendrix Genetics, the technology is available and getting cheaper all the time. Basically, the same techniques are also used for other animal species, like swine and poultry, so we can also use this advanced technology for lower value species as well. We have one lab in France, were all the DNA samples are kept and analysed, which significantly reduces costs. That’s the benefit of a multi species breeding house.”

Profitability and scale
This a really a key part of Hendrix Genetics’ business strategy, Manchester continues “Breeding is a fixed cost business, so the company that is most successful, is the company that can spend the most on R&D, at the lowest unit cost, because that determines your profitability. That’s your genetic progress. You have to have scale. That’s why we believe that in the end there will be only two or three breeding houses in the world and Hendrix Genetics will be one of them.”

Who would be the key competition for Hendrix Genetics?

“The three leading independent companies in salmon breeding are Benchmark, AquaGen and Hendrix Genetics. AquaGen has a very strong position in salmon in Chile, the UK and Norway. They made significant developments in tilapia and are now involved rainbow trout breeding. They are a multispecies company, including land species, like we are, we compete with them everywhere.”