The Aquaculture sector, with an installation covering a surface of over 1000 m², is dedicated to the implementation of technologies for genetic improvement in salt- and freshwater fish species and the development and improvement of reproductive and breeding techniques. The research activities cover issues going from the development of viable sperm cryopreservation techniques to the genetic characterization of fish stock. The sector is involved in conservation and repopulation programs of species which are at risk of extinction, e.g. Garda Lake Carp (Salmo carpio), the bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) and the Adriatic sturgeon (Acipenser naccarii). It is equipped with two microalgae labs dedicated, respectively, to the development of technologies for experimental cultivation of microalgae strains aimed at bioremediation and to the production of bioactive molecules for cosmetic, pharmaceutical and nutraceutical purposes. This sector actively collaborates with fish hatchery centres, fish farms and with nationally and internationally recognized research centres.

STRUCTURES

The Aquaculture sector of the Institute Spallanzani comprises a facility of approximately 1200 m² equipped with closed circuit tanks and two laboratories dedicated to the cultivation of microalgae.

The closed circuit tanks are thermostatically-controlled and are designed for the management of the artificial photoperiod. Each tank is equipped with mechanic and biological filters, an emergency pomp, an automatic system for controlling the oxygen level in the water and an emergency system.

The installation consists of various areas

    • Quarantine, equipped with two independent lines of 3 tanks each (5 m³)

    • Reproduction, equipped with two independent lines of 6 tanks of 5 m³

    • Breeding, equipped with 2 independent lines of 12 tanks of 4 m³

    • Fish hatcheries, equipped with laboratories for maintenance of algal strains, with sections dedicated to the production of phyto- and zooplankton (algae, rotifers, artemia) and 210 tanks of 120 litres for the incubation, the hatching and the growth of larvae. There is also a section equipped with California cages for the production of salmon fry.

The system supports comparisons both within lines and within breeders. It also provides artificial seawater, and is equipped with a thermostat and a semi-automatic tank filling system.
The two microalgae laboratories are dedicated to research activities concerning respectively bio-remediation and experimental cultivation of microalgal strains for the production of valuable molecules of interest for the cosmetic, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical sectors.

As follows is the list of projects in which the Institute Spallanzani has been involved as the leader organization or as the partner of local, national or European institutions:

BREEDING AND GENETIC IMPROVEMENT OF FISH SPECIES

One of the main research activities of the aquaculture sector is the genetic improvement of the farmed fish species (bass, sea bream, trout, sturgeon) with regard to specific characters of interest (growth rate, resistance to diseases…). The disciplines of the quantitative genetics and population genetics exploit the genomic tools to regulate the experimental approaches applied in this sector. These approaches wish to respect the territory and the zootechnical production from an ecological point of view, to obtain quality products which are authentic and in optimal health. These objectives are realised through the use of artificial reproduction and breeding techniques, the marking of individuals (microchip and genetic fingerprinting), the development of specific control guide lines and the auto-reception of biometric data. More specifically, the Institute has developed genetic techniques (microsatellites and SNPs) and information technology needed for the genetic characterization of the breeders and their offspring in order to retrospectively assign the parents inserted in programs of genetic improvement and to measure the level of genetic variability in wild and farmed populations.

There are various protocols available for a certain fish species, e.g. the bass (Dicentrarchus labrax), the sea bream (Sparus aurata), Adriatic sturgeon (Acipenser naccari), the Bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) and the trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). These activities are carried out in collaboration with local, national and European research partners and breeding companies.

PROTECTION OF THE SPECIES AT RISK OF EXTINCTION

Overall, the state of preservation of fresh water fish in Italy is quite critical and it reflects the general situation of decay of the hydrographic network and the ecosystem services. The Institute Spallanzani is involved in conservational programs of species at risk of extinction (e.g. the Garda Lake Carp (Salmo carpio) and the Adriatic sturgeon (Acipenser naccarii)) which aim at improving the management of the fish stock and genetic resources. These activities consist in the characterisation of the available genetic resources by molecular genetic techniques which make it possible, on the one hand, to explore the diversity within a population (within the breed diversity) and in-between populations (determining their relationships) and, on the other hand, to keep their internal structure monitored over time with the aim to modify the management strategies (if necessary). Moreover, through the development of protocols for the identification of single individuals (breeders and offspring) and a retrospective parental assignment, the Institute Spallanzani is able to program crossbreeding between fish species avoiding inbreeding and, thus, guaranteeing a release in the environment of an offspring with a high level of genetic variability.

MICROALGAE

Microalgae are photosynthetic prokaryotic and eukaryotic microorganisms which are present in all aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. They can grow rapidly and survive in difficult living conditions due to their simplified structure. The current research on the wide variety of microalgae and their derivatives which are of great importance to biological research indicates that these microorganisms could significantly revolutionise various fields of biotechnology. The Institute Spallanzani, thanks to its two microalgae laboratories and its own aquacultural installation, is involved in the following activities:

  • bio-remediation, by means of experimental cultivation of microalgae on agricultural waste with the aim to reduce the nitrogen level which one needs to dispose of in farmlands and to reduce at the same time the phosphor and the heavy metals in the very same farmlands.

  • evaluation of the microalgal biomass, by studying and extracting of bioactive molecules which are of interest to the cosmetic, nutraceutical and pharmaceutical studies and also by developing procedural solutions for agricultural and industrial purposes, to move towards a economic cycle.

  • Aquaculture, by using microalgae to feed the zooplankton in the hatcheries or simply as fish food in experimental breeding tests.

As far as research subjects regarding bio-economy and eco-sustainability the Institute is also involved in the development of experimental cultivation processes structured within the specific companies where these processes are to be applied in order to upgrade these companies’ functionality. The goal is to develop real bio-refineries which have an extensive territorial scope and a positive socio-economic, technical, scientific and ecological impact.

SEMEN CRYOBIOLOGY

Sperm cryopreservation is the technology which allows the preservation in a “latent” state of the spermatozoon at very low temperatures (-196°C).

In aquaculture, this technique is particularly interesting for the development of the germplasm banks which function as the “container” of genetic variability not only for genetic improvement programs of the bred fish species but also for the planning of crossbreeding in conservation programs for species at risk of extinction.

Sperm freezing implies the use of an automatic freezing room (minidigitcooler IMV) following the freezing curves which are specific for the studied species.

At the end of the cryopreservation cycle, the straws are stocked in tanks containing liquid nitrogen and, subsequently, their concentration, motility, average speed, and morphology are analysed and they are submitted to functional tests.

After thawing, the cryopreserved sperm can be used in artificial fertilization, allowing the creation of fertilised eggs even in situations in which there are no males available for the sperm collection.