By Benjamin Bromberg
Over the past 20 years, the economic impact of oyster fisheries on the Maine economy has increased by a factor of seven, jumping from a valuation of $1-2 million in the early 2000s to a valuation of $13.6 million in 2018. The growth of oyster fisheries has eclipsed that of all other popular fisheries in Maine, save for the $500 million lobster industry. According to a 2016 analysis published by the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI), Maine oyster production is expected to triple, or even quadruple, by 2030.
In the Microbiology and Parasitology Laboratory, run by my mentor Dr. José António Fernandez Robledo, we are interested in the growing impact of the oyster industry on the Maine economy, and we are doing research that may aid in the expansion of the industry into a new type of aquaculture. Most oysters in Maine are raised in a traditional aquaculture setting, where thousands of oysters are grown in groups, often placed into cages on tidal flats. Cellular aquaculture, a new type of aquaculture that is still in its infancy, would take an entirely new approach to producing oyster products.
Cellular aquaculture pursues the same objectives as cellular agriculture, a rapidly growing agricultural industry that you likely have heard of. Cellular agriculture is the process of producing agricultural products from cell cultures. These products are either acellular or cellular. Acellular products (e.g. proteins, fats) are produced by genetically engineered microbes (e.g. yeast, bacteria). Modern day insulin production is accomplished in this manner instead of isolating it from the pancreases of slaughtered cattle and pigs, as it once was. Cellular products (e.g. meat, leather) are produced by growing cells, from a particular species and tissue type, on a scaffold and in a serum that promote cellular growth. While this is scientifically a much harder task to accomplish, many companies are currently competing to be the first to mass-produce and sell cell-based meat or other animal products grown in a lab. Cellular aquaculture will focus on adapting techniques used in cellular agriculture to produce acellular and cellular products derived from fish, shellfish, and crustaceans.
Crassostrea virginica (the Eastern oyster) is the most common commercially farmed oyster in Maine and should therefore be targeted by researchers. To establish cellular aquaculture for oysters, oyster cell lines would have to first be established that demonstrate embryonic pluripotency. This summer, I am helping Dr. Fernández Robledo create a method to establish oyster cell cultures that can be used investigate the creation of cell-based oyster products in the future.
Because my work with Dr. Fernandez Robledo is entirely virtual this summer, I have been able to delve deep into the literature that we are using to support our project. Immersing myself in my project in such a manner has allowed me to contribute many new ideas to our project that I would have otherwise been unable to if I was spending much of my day-to-day time working hands-on in the lab on another project.
Benjamin Bromberg is a Lewis and Clark College student in Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Science’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program. This intensive experience provides an immersion in ocean research with an emphasis on state-of-the-art methods and technologies.