Chilean student’s thesis may save thousands of salmon

Biochemistry student Paulina Calquín’s recently published thesis offers a way to detect a debilitating bacteria that kills many Chilean salmon.

Chilean biochemistry student Paulina Calquín’s recently published thesis carried out at the University of Austral may be able to provide an important boost to the Chilean salmon industry.

While salmon production is Chile’s third largest industry following mining and forestry, the country’s salmon hatcheries have been threatened since 1989 by the harsh Rickettsial Septicemia (SRS) bacteria that devours the internal organs of fish and leads to death.

In February, Calquín’s thesis revealed new ways to detect the SRS bacteria in its early phases. While earlier tests existed, they were clumsy and slow; by the time the disease was detected it was simply too late.

“For me the most important thing is to use the world of science to solve southern Chile’s current problems,” Calquín said. “Understanding how to accurately detect the bacteria is uniquely orientated to serve the needs of our country.”

In an interview with The Santiago Times, Calquín described what her test involves.

«The method uses a piece of salmon tissue and removes a complete DNA strand,” she said. “A multi-step process produces a polymerase chain reaction in real time to detect this bacteria’s genetic material in the samples and quantify the amount.”

Calquín’s interest in protecting Chilean salmon arose when the government sponsored an initiative towards developing some kind of vaccine against SRS.

Currently Calquín and her professor Dr. Alejandro Yáñez are honing the details of the study and waiting for a patent on part of the methods used. From there, the team plans to begin screening hatcheries for SRS in late 2013.

According to Chile’s central bank, the salmon industry was responsible for US$670 million of Chile’s GDP in the first quarter of 2012. Chile is the main salmon supplier to the U.S., Japan, and Brazil and is the second largest salmon exporter in the world after Norway.