Start-up finds ‘holy grail’ in female prawns, shrimp

Start-up finds ‘holy grail’ in female prawns, shrimp

US-Israeli Enzootic wins first prize in AgriVest’s competition at Weizman Institute for its technology

Enzootic's all-female prawns (Courtesy)
Enzootic's all-female prawns (Courtesy)

Did you know that giant river male prawns are bigger and thus more profitable than female prawns? However, because of their dominant and territorial behavior, when grown with other prawns, male or female, they need to be raised in special conditions, at a density of just four animals per square meter.

Female prawns, although smaller in size, are less aggressive and less dominating, and for many years it was believed that the cultivation of only female prawns could potentially allow a significant increase in prawn farming. Because they are less aggressive they can be raised with up to 40 animals per square meter, and they grow at a quicker pace and in a uniform way.

Enters the US-Israeli start-up Enzootic. It has managed to produce the first commercially available all female-population of M. rosenbergii, the giant river prawn, using a mix of biotechnology methods and new molecular tools, and without the use of chemicals, hormones or genetic engineering.

This technology can be potentially used on any crustacean, whether shrimp, prawn or crab, the company said.

“In shrimps, having cultures of only females is a big advantage because females are bigger, they grow faster and with less food. In a huge market like the crustacean one, this is a great economic advantage,” said Raveh Gill-More, VP Business Development at Enzootic.

Enzootic's CEO Dr Assaf Shechter (Courtesy)
Enzootic’s CEO Dr Assaf Shechter (Courtesy)

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 6.9 million tons of crustaceans are produced annually worldwide, at a value of over $36 billion. The crustacean aquaculture market is the fastest-growing livestock segment in the world with over 10 percent compounded annual growth for the last decade, and expected to grow even more in the future, driven by the rising GDP per capita in Asia, where demand for these products is highest.

Enzootic uses a single injection of parental cells to produce females with just WW chromosomes, which are sold to its customers — select hatcheries and breeding companies. These WW females are then crossed with normal males, with ZZ chromosomes, to produce the much desired all-female progeny.

“The system works only on crustaceans,” Gill-More said. “We didn’t use any kind of genetic modification to achieve our goal. We actually made these females manipulating the prawns’ parents to obtain what we wanted.”

Last week Enzootic won the first prize in a start-up competition at the International AgriVest Conference held at the Weizmann Institute of Science, in which 45 other Israeli companies vied for the top prize.

“Enzootic was founded in late 2012, and reached commercialization of our products at the beginning of 2016, quite fast for a biotechnological product. No one before us was able to do what we did. Manually selecting the female prawns or shrimp doesn’t work because it’s hard to establish if a prawn is a male or female when it is very young,” said Gill-More. “Thanks to the experience and research of our founders, Dr. Assaf Shechter our CEO and professor Amir Sagi, our CTO, we were able to understand the crustacean reproduction and achieve this holy grail.”

Enzootic's CTO, Prof. Amir Sagi (Courtesy)
Enzootic’s CTO, Prof. Amir Sagi (Courtesy)

Enzootic has offices in Irvine, California and Hong Kong, and a research and development center in Beersheba.

The company has just started selling its broodstock to select hatcheries that breed them and sell the offspring to farmers. “It’s a brand-new technology and we are only beginning, hence we don’t have significant revenues yet,” Gill-More said. “For the future, the goal is to increase revenues and attract new customers. In addition, we are developing two new technologies, both improving yield, profitability and sustainability in the crustacean aquaculture world,” he said.

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