By Dr. Jesse Trushenski
Originally appeared in The Factual Fish Squeezer “The bottom line on aquaculture, hatcheries, and farmed fish”
Brightly colored and beautiful, Glofish like the ones pictured here are quite popular in the aquarium trade. They delight children and adults alike, but these lemon-lime colored lovelies have a dark secret. They are…cue the dramatic music…GMOs.
As you may have suspected, “Galactic Purple Zebrafish”, “Moonrise Pink Tetras”, and “Electric Green Barbs” are not naturally occurring, but are the result of a handy bit of genetic engineering. Normally these fish are somewhat drab, but insert a gene from a fluorescent jellyfish or coral and presto! You’ve got fish that would put your dorm-room black-light poster to shame. Fish that could be mistaken for swimming highlighters might seem like a frivolous application for genetic engineering, but Glofish were actually developed as part of an effort to create sentinel fish that would fluoresce when exposed to environmental contaminants1. Creating genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, is no small feat, and developing novelty pets is certainly not on the to-do list for those involved in this kind of R & D. For the creators of the transgenic Glofish, it’s just a bit of fun on the side.
The media has focused a fair bit of attention on GMOs, but most people aren’t afraid of the big, bad Glofish. In fact, most parents probably don’t know that Junior’s aquarium is rife with transgenic fish. No, the transgenic monster that most people fear—Frankenfish!—is a GMO called AquAdvantage created by AquaBounty Technologies. The AquAdvantage salmon was created by adding just a dash of Chinook salmon DNA to the Atlantic salmon genome. Normally, Atlantic salmon grow fastest in the spring and summer months when water temperatures are warmest. Thanks to the Chinook salmon gene, the AquAdvantage fish can grow rapidly year-round and reach a marketable size in about half the time that it takes a normal Atlantic salmon.
It’s not surprising that many people are concerned about such a fish winding up on their plates or in the wild. Is this salmon safe to eat? Could these fish escape into the wild? These are legitimate questions being mulled by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, who has yet to issue the final word on AquAdvantage. Having personally experienced the FDA approval process as it applies to fish drugs (which is how FDA regulates the genes inserted into GloFish and AquAdvantage—as drugs), I can attest to how glacially deliberate and comprehensive-to-the-point-of-absurdity the process can be. I’m not sure how FDA will rule on AquAdvantage. I’m not even sure whether I think transgenic salmon are a good idea—I’m convinced of the technology and the ability to effectively regulate transgenic fish, but I’m not sure they are the future of aquaculture. But I think consumers’ fear is misplaced. If AquAdvantage fish are approved, they will be under exceptionally strict regulations—the fish will have to be sterile, raised under lock and key in land-based facilities with multiple redundant systems to prevent theft or escapement, etc. But as I said, I’m not sure these fish are the future of aquaculture. I mean, will consumers even want to buy a GMO salmon? Granted, 40-75% of the products in American grocery stores already contain genetically engineered ingredients, but these are from GMO plants like soy, corn, and sugar beets, and most people don’t seem to be too worried about Frankenbeets. GMO crops don’t seem to bother most consumers, but GMO fish…well, that’s just…different. Actually, it’s exactly the same thing, but nobody said consumer preferences had to make sense—this is America, damn it.
For now, consumers need not lose sleep over the salmon they just bought or wrestle with their idiosyncratic views of transgenic foods. There is no genetically engineered seafood sold in the United States. If GMO salmon is ever sold in grocery stores, it will be almost certainly be labeled as such, probably with brightly colored stickers. Might I suggest Galactic Purple or Electric Green?