April 10, 2018

To Go Green, Synthetic Biologists Should Think Blue

aquaculture
Image: Jakob Owens / Unsplash

An innovation prize awaits anyone who develops sustainable “fish-free” fish oils.

This article is brought to you by our sponsor, The F3 Challenge.

Globally, we eat a lot of fish.

Fish exports reeled in $148 billion worldwide in 2014, accounting for nearly ten percent of all agricultural exports. Fish from developing countries provide more net trade revenue than meat, tobacco, rice and sugar combined. And thanks to supply-chain and other improvements, the average person now consumes a record-breaking 20 kilograms of fish per year.

Rising fish consumption around the world means more protein and healthy oils for more people. But according to the UN’s fishery watchdog, nearly one in three commercial wild fish stocks are already being overfished. In regions such as the Mediterranean, nearly two in three wild fish stocks are being tapped at rates deemed biologically unsustainable.

Fortunately for our oceans, aquaculture offers an alternative. By raising fish on land, growers leave wild populations — and fragile marine ecosystems — intact. Aquaculture now accounts for more than half of all the seafood on our plates. Rapid growth and innovation in fish farming is largely responsible for our increasing fish supply.

aquaculture

Image: Ivan Walsh / Flickr, CC BY 2.0

But, when it comes to raising fish, it’s a fish-eat-fish world.

Whether sturgeon, carp, tuna or salmon, all fish need to eat. In addition to protein, the healthy oils we crave in our fish come from the fish our fish eat — and, ultimately, from the plankton and algae those smaller fish consume. Many foraging fish species including anchovies, sardines, mackerel and pollock are captured and processed into aquaculture feed, meaning fish farming is still hooked into the ocean.

To improve aquaculture and help secure our marine ecosystems, we must move away from exploiting the ocean’s central food chain. This challenge requires innovation, and innovation is what synthetic biology is all about.

The F3 Fish Oil  Challenge, sponsored by SynBioBeta, the World Bank and others, seeks to speed up our transition away from ocean exploitation by developing fish oil replacements that can be used to feed farmed fish. The F3 Challenge will award a prize of at least $100,000 to whichever team or company sells the most synthetic fish oil blend.

bioreactor

Umberto Salvagnin / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Fish oil derived from foraging species contains a mixture of essential fatty acids, including docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), arachidonic acid (AHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). For a synthetic fish oil blend to compete for the main prize, it must include all three. Cultured algae and fungi are promising sources of DNA, AHA and EPA, and may enable fisheries to cut out the ‘middle fish’.

Any team (companies can register a team) interested in developing sustainable fatty acids could benefit from enrolling in the F3 Challenge. Beyond the allure of a prize, participants will gain access to significant public relations and media attention, and those with qualifying fish oil blends will be invited to an invitation-only meeting focused on alternative ingredients for aquaculture, to be held in San Francisco CA in February 2019. Teams will have the opportunity to present their products to investors, feed companies and media. Registration closes April 30, and registered teams have until November 30 to submit their F3 “fish-free” oil sample and add partners to their team.

Not sure if your product is likely to win? There is nothing to lose by registering, even if a product is super early stage. It may lead to good partnerships down the line.

caption for fish farm

Image: Ivan Walsh / Flickr, CC BY 2.0

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