TAMU-CC Researcher Receives National Award for Farmed Oyster Breeding Project

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi researcher Dr. Christopher Hollenbeck is being recognized nationally for his work to breed a more robust strain of oysters better suited to being raised commercially in oyster farms.

Hollenbeck, assistant professor in the College of Science and Engineering’s Department of Life Sciences, received the 2020 New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research Award from the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research, a national organization working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research agenda.

Hollenbeck is one of only eight researchers receiving the award, who will cumulatively receive more than $3.5 million. The foundation recognized researchers at Colorado State University, the University of Central Florida, Purdue University, and other institutions.

With research interests involving the use of genomic approaches to improve aquaculture, fisheries management, and conservation of marine species, Hollenbeck has a joint appointment with Texas A&M AgriLife Research. He is a member of the Marine Genomics Lab at A&M-Corpus Christi.

“This prestigious award does much more than fund critical research for the improvement of oyster mariculture,” COSE Dean Frank Pezold said. “It is a continuing story of the successful partnership between Texas AgriLife and TAMU-CC’s Fisheries & Mariculture faculty to develop sustainable seafoods for the state and the nation. The caliber of Dr. Hollenbeck’s recognition and support allows us to attract students today who will be the leaders in this field tomorrow.”

The total award to TAMU-CC over three years is $409,122. Hollenbeck’s project partners include Dr. David Portnoy, associate professor of marine biology at TAMU-CC, collaborators from the University of Edinburgh (UK), and industrial partners.

Globally, aquaculture production of oysters was worth nearly $4 billion in 2017, with two species, Pacific oyster and eastern oyster making up over 97% of the total value, Hollenbeck said.

“As the productivity of the oyster fishery has declined in recent years, oyster aquaculture in the United States has steadily expanded to satisfy growing demand,” he said. “Most recently, the state of Texas in 2019 approved the development of a legal framework for oyster aquaculture for the first time, presenting a considerable opportunity to expand the production of domestically farmed seafood in the United States.”

While oysters are a particularly sustainable source of animal protein, the process of breeding oysters for desirable traits is still developing. Hollenbeck is working to improve selective breeding of oysters by developing new methods to overcome barriers to genomics-based breeding. One particular challenge is the development of oysters that can better withstand fluctuations in salinity that occur in coastal waters.

“Oyster farms tend to be close to shore and are often situated in bays and estuaries where the salinity fluctuates a great deal,” Hollenbeck said. “When there is a lot of rainfall – a hurricane for example – the salinity in these areas tends to drop quickly, and this often causes stress and mortality in the oysters. If oysters can be bred to tolerate longer periods of extreme salinities, low or high, farmers will be able to keep more of their crop alive until market size.”

Results of the research will help increase productivity and sustainability to benefit the oyster aquaculture industry in the U.S. and around the world.

The New Innovator in Food & Agriculture Research Award provides early career scientists with funding to conduct groundbreaking food and agriculture research. The foundation’s goal is to invest in these scientists in the early years of their careers, allowing them to pursue innovative and transformational ideas uninhibited by the pressure of securing funding for their next grant.

“FFAR is proud to foster the pioneering food and agriculture research of the 2020 New Innovator awardees,” said FFAR Executive Director Dr. Sally Rockey. “Because the New Innovator Award provides significant funds, it provides an excellent foundation for scientists pursuing bold scientific breakthroughs. By investing in their research today, we are ensuring a future sustainable food and agriculture industry.”