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Los Angeles Times

May 14, 2003 Wednesday

Main News; Part 1; Page 1; Metro Desk

It Came From the Gene Lab;

Faster-growing salmon? Aquarium fish that glow in the dark? Regulators are

at a crossroads over bioengineered animals.

Kenneth R. Weiss, Times Staff Writer

One newly bioengineered salmon, endowed with a gene from an eel-like fish,

grows five times faster than its natural cousins. Another genetically

modified salmon produces antifreeze in its blood so it can survive icy

waters that swirl through oceanic fish farms.

A tropical zebra fish, infused with the green fluorescent gene of a

jellyfish, glows in the dark -- a living novelty that promoters hope will be

a must-have for the home aquarium.

These experimental superfish are more than laboratory curiosities. They are

the progeny of genetic engineers whose skill at mixing and matching genes is

outpacing laws and regulations meant to protect the food supply and the


None of these designer fish, being pushed by biotech entrepreneurs as

potential lucrative ventures, have yet reached the market. But the U.S. Food

and Drug Administration has initiated a review of the souped-up salmon, a

process that could lead to the first approval of a "transgenic" animal --

one that has genetic material transplanted from another.

Although the human health implications of eating bioengineered animals

remain unknown, a panel of scientists last August reported it had "a

moderate level of concern" that new species could trigger allergic

reactions. What might happen, the scientists asked, if a gene from a

shellfish were implanted into a fish? Could it cause a reaction in consumers

hypersensitive to shellfish?

The National Academy of Sciences panel, assembled at the FDA's request, said

its primary concern was the potential for ecological havoc should highly

mobile, fast-breeding transgenic species escape into the wild.

"It is possible," the panel reported, "that if transgenic salmon with genes

engineered to accelerate growth were released into the natural environment,

they could compete more successfully for food and mates than wild salmon."

That means these "Frankenfish," as critics have labeled them, could squeeze

out their wild cousins, driving them to extinction through interbreeding or

by eating them.

Alarmed by the potential risks, Washington, Oregon and Maryland have banned

genetically enhanced fish to protect the native fish populations.

California's Fish and Game Commission, trying not to hinder scientific

research or the state's burgeoning biotech industry, plans to grant permits,

based on its own reviews, for each new transgenic species as it emerges

under new rules that take effect today.

"We could have put up a stop sign and said, 'No,' " said Michael Flores,

president of the Fish and Game Commission. "But then we would have crippled

our university researchers and other research and development. We will look

at every single species and make sure safeguards are in place."

West Coast commercial fishermen are pushing California to ban genetically

altered fish, arguing that the potential threat to wild salmon and other

native species is too great.

"Once this genie escapes, can we put it back in the bottle?" asked Zeke

Grader, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's

Assns. "I doubt it.

"So what happens when these fish get out in the wild? Will they spread

disease? Will they be predators of our native fish or interbreed with them?

How can we assure the public the fish we catch are safe if transgenic fish

are mixed in?

"It's all unknown," Grader said.

It's the FDA's job to answer those questions. But "marine ecology is not

historically an area of FDA scientific strength," said Michael Taylor, a

National Academy of Sciences panel member and senior fellow at the nonprofit

Resources for the Future.

Taylor and others also fault the agency for closing its reviews to the

public to protect trade secrets.

Lester M. Crawford, deputy FDA commissioner, said the agency is

reconsidering its secrecy policy when weighing the food safety and

ecological impact of newly designed species.

"We certainly have a framework to deal with environmental risks," Crawford


But new breeds of transgenic animals have prompted some internal

soul-searching. "We are evaluating whether we need new regulations or new

money or congressional authority to tweak the law," Crawford said.

He said the agency may never approve a transgenic fish or any other kind of

genetically modified animal for the marketplace. But the pressure is

mounting to do so, with a menagerie of them expected to arrive at the FDA's

offices soon.

Researchers at biotech companies and universities have redesigned the genes

of freshwater catfish and tilapia to make them grow faster, and those of

shrimp and abalone to help them resist disease.

Scientists in Singapore are designing ornamental fish -- such as the zebra

fish -- that glow green when spliced with a jellyfish gene or red when

infused with the gene of a sea anemone.

Those same researchers are devising a fish that changes color when it passes

through different temperatures. Such gene-splicing is being extended to

goldfish and koi, stirring excitement in the $1-billion annual home aquarium


Genetic manipulations are becoming so routine that an artist in Chicago has

put a pair of florescent green zebra fish on public display, along with

assorted glow-in-the-dark rodents and other creatures he calls "transgenic

art" in an exhibit called "The Eighth Day."

"We're adding one day to the seven days of creation," said Eduardo Kac, a

self-described "biotech artist" at the School of the Art Institute of


"From the technical point of view, the technology is here and part of

society. I'm saying, 'What are we going to do with it?' "

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Discussion Starter · #2 ·

Genetically enhanced fish are just the beginning.

A Canadian firm has spliced a spider gene into goats so their milk is laced

with spider thread that can be extracted to make bulletproof vests or

surgical sutures.

Other animals are being tailored to the demands of factory farms, from

featherless fowl that don't need to be plucked to low-emission pigs that

excrete 75% less phosphorous, a key contaminant in agricultural runoff.

Advances in genetically modified plants are much further along, both in

government approval and public acceptance. Unlike Europeans, most Americans

have readily digested the idea of genetically engineered corn, soybeans and

cotton that have been modified to resist insects and tolerate herbicides.

The first animal candidate for FDA approval is an Atlantic salmon with the

transplanted gene of an ocean pout, an ugly, bottom-dwelling fish that

resembles an eel.

Elliot Entis, co-founder and president of the firm that wants to market the

salmon, Aqua Bounty of Waltham, Mass., said the pout gene allows the salmon

to produce growth hormones year-round, instead of during warmer months, so

that it grows five times as fast as a normal farm-raised salmon.

Aqua Bounty's salmon do not end up larger than their natural cousins. But

they reach marketable size much faster, in 18 months -- and do so with 10%

to 25% less food, Entis said.

"It's like tuning up your car," he said. "Instead of 10 miles per gallon, in

the early stages it gets 40 miles per gallon."

Raising salmon on less food is an important advance. It now takes about 2

1/2 pounds of wild fish ground into meal to produce one pound of farmed


For that reason, feeding salmon on those proliferating farms contributes to

the overfishing that is rapidly depleting the world's oceans.

Entis said genetically enhanced fish are needed to feed a growing global

population. He believes the risk of the fish escaping can be all but

eliminated by containing them in inland tanks. He also proposes to make them


But scientists say fish tend to flop out of the most secure pens and that no

sterility technique works 100% of the time.

The FDA has brought in a team of experts from the Environmental Protection

Agency, National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

to help assess the potential ecological impact.

One of the few studies to look into the issue focused on the risk of

extinction of native species by what researchers at Purdue University called

the "Trojan gene" effect.

Genetics professor William Muir and biologist Richard Howard, studying

mating and survival rates, found that transgenic fish are typically larger

than their wild cousins.

That gives them an advantage in attracting mates. If the genetic change

reduces the offspring's life expectancy, as it did in their laboratory

experiments, a transgenic fish could wipe out a wild population in as few as

40 generations.

Worried about Northern California's salmon runs, state Sen. Byron Sher

(D-Stanford) has asked California officials to yank the new regulations on

genetically enhanced fish, arguing that it is premature to legalize the

"commercialization of transgenic fish" with so many unknowns and potential


"The FDA has not yet decided whether farm-raised transgenic fish are safe to

eat," Sher wrote to California Fish and Game Director Bob Hight.

"Equally important, there are growing concerns that FDA's regulatory process

does not adequately consider the potential environmental risks to native

fish species."

Fish and Game officials defend the regulations, saying they are designed to

protect native species rather than promote genetic tinkering.

State officials have no idea how many bioengineered fish may exist in


The new rules are designed to help them find out and impose state controls,

such as requiring secure fish tanks to prevent escape as researchers,

farmers or fish sellers obtain permits to possess, transport or raise

animals with altered genes.

Fish and Game officials expect to hear first from biomedical researchers at

UCLA and UC San Francisco, who work with genetically altered zebra fish in

research on human heart disease.

Zebra fish, a tropical freshwater species, are gaining popularity as a lab

research tool. That's partly because they reproduce quickly and are cheap to

maintain, and partly because scientists are nearly done mapping the fish's

genome, which has significant similarities to that of humans.

"Once you get the genome completed, it begs for you to do some

manipulation," said Marc Aarens, UC's director of academic legislative


Researchers tinkering with zebra fish genes declined to be interviewed.

"It's important work -- research dealing with heart disease -- and none of

them want publicity," Aarens said.

"We might get protesters who fear they are creating 'Frankenfish' and going

to ruin the environment."

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Yeah... In a BIology class once, I watched this video. On it, there were guppies (the glowy kind). And they took the glowing gene from the guppies, and incorporated it into mouse DNA... So there were glowing mice running around. It was silly, pointless, creepy, and sad.

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Originally posted by jacfong

this is so silly....why must people do this?
Money....loads of money to be made.

Let's be the first to do it, regardless of the risk...make lots of money and let someone else face the consequenses when it all blows up in their face.

GMO fish are a thread to the original population.


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Man now I can really sleep at night, I was wondering how they were gonna make salmon glow! It's not funny just stupid. Like the time they attached a human ear to the back of a mouse to see if it's skin would accept it so they could engineer mice to be able to produce "extra" parts for people. So are neon tetras not naturally "glowy".?I had those when I was little. Give a man an inch... Give science an inch and they'll turn it into an inchworm.

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So of course now they're marketing it for Christmas.






By Kenneth R. Weiss, Times Staff Writer

Biotech entrepreneurs on Friday unveiled plans to market the nation's first genetically engineered pet a tropical zebra fish infused with the gene of a sea anemone that makes it glow fluorescent red touching off a debate over who should control the release of transgenic animals.

The freshwater fish with mixed and matched genes cannot be imported or sold in California unless state officials relax rules designed to make sure genetically altered fish don't pose a threat to the environment.

And a consortium of conservation and food-safety groups has asked federal regulators to intervene and halt the marketing of genetically altered pet fish nationwide.

Promoters of the trademarked GloFish said that zebra fish, with or without the fluorescent gene, are perfectly safe and have been test subjects for decades in biological research labs throughout the United States.

They point out that despite innumerable escapes from breeding pens and labs over the years, zebra fish, accustomed to the balmy waters of their native India and Bangladesh, have never established a wild colony in the nontropical waters of the United States. And if they glow fluorescent red, escapees would be easier targets for predators and thus even less likely to survive.

"A lot of the concern is: 'What if this fish gets out and interbreeds with wild populations?' " said Alan Blake, chief executive officer of Yorktown Technologies in Austin, Texas. "But there are no wild populations in the United States, despite being sold by the millions over the years."

Blake said his company, working with a pair of ornamental fish farms in Florida, holds exclusive U.S. rights to the patented technology developed at the National University of Singapore. They plan to release the pet fish on the market Jan. 5.

The aquarium industry anticipates a big splash, with a boost in Christmas sales of fish tanks in anticipation of the novelty. This is the first genetically altered pet being produced for market, but researchers are working on others, including an allergen-free cat.

Zebra fish, which are 1 1/2 inches long and normally light gray with black stripes, are widely used in biomedical laboratories for research in genetics, molecular biology and vertebrate development. Geneticists began splicing the fluorescent genes of jellyfish into zebra fish eggs as genetic markers or to "light up" in the presence of toxins.

Initially, researchers used the green fluorescent protein isolated from a jellyfish to produce green fish, and then altered the proteins to create yellow fish. More recently, they cloned the red fluorescent protein from a sea anemone to create red fish.

Yorktown Technologies, along with Segrest Farms and 5-D Tropical, announced Friday their first release will be a red zebra fish. Other colors will follow. These genetically enhanced fish do not generate their own light, but simply reflect it. Under daylight, they radiate red. Under ultraviolet or black lights, they seem to glow red in the dark.

The fish farms are cultivating the fluorescent fish by the thousands, Blake said, and the partners are expecting demand for them priced at about $5 apiece to climb into the millions.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine asserts jurisdiction over the commercial development of genetically altered animals, such as cows designed to produce more milk.

In talking to FDA officials, Blake said, they "did not say they had any regulations for ornamental fluorescent fish. We also checked with the U.S. [Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Agriculture] and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. None of them has any regulatory concerns with an ornamental fluorescent zebra fish."

Yet a collection of food-safety and conservation groups sent a letter this week to the FDA , urging immediate intervention.

"If FDA somehow fails to regulate the proposal of Yorktown Technologies it will set a precedent for all other [genetically engineered] fish producers and the floodgates will almost literally be opened," wrote Andrew Kimbrell, executive director of the Center for Food Safety. Other groups signing the letter included the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the National Environmental Trust.

An FDA spokeswoman on Friday did not have immediate comment.

Fluorescent fish are now sold in Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong, but were rejected by the aquarium industry in England over concerns about genetically modified organisms.

In the U.S., the National Academies of Science raised concerns over the potential of ecological havoc should a highly mobile, fast-breeding transgenic species escape into the wild.

California has banned the cultivation of transgenic fish in the ocean, but allows them to be raised in secure research labs.

But Ed Pert, a California Department of Fish and Game official, said he doesn't see how a transgenic fish aimed at the home aquarium market could meet environmental safeguards. "People get tired of their pets," Pert said, "and when they want to get rid of them, they often don't want to kill them, so they let them go in a local stream or lake."

Promoters of GloFish have urged California to exempt the fluorescent zebra fish and supplied letters from prominent scientists attesting to low risk.

Pert said he expects the department's recommendation next week. The matter is to be debated before the Fish and Game Commission on Dec. 4.
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