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Transgenic Fish Swimming Towards a Plate Near You

If the US approves genetically modified fish for human consumption, the implications will be global

AT an undisclosed location in the highlands of Panama, 68 water tanks sit behind a code-protected door. The building's ground-floor windows are barred, motion detectors are deployed inside and the exterior steel doors are dead-bolted. To reach this citadel, an intruder would have to breach a fence topped with barbed wire and dodge motion-activated cameras.

What sounds like the lair of a James Bond villain is actually a fish-rearing facility owned by AquaBounty Technologies, based in Waltham, Massachusetts. It was set up to win the world's first approval to sell a genetically modified (GM) fish for human consumption. Whether or not the safety measures are sufficient will be debated next week, when the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) holds public meetings on AquaBounty's proposal to sell a variety of Atlantic salmon that is engineered to grow about twice as fast as normal fish.

Regulators worldwide have been looking to the FDA to take a lead on the issue of GM fish. If, as seems likely, it gives the green light, engineered fish being developed in labs from China to Cuba could follow (see table). "This is precedent-setting, not just in the US but internationally," says Eric Hallerman, a fish geneticist at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg.

AquaBounty's salmon owes its rapid growth to a hormone gene from the chinook salmon. It would be the first GM animal to be approved for human consumption. The main scientific controversy relates not to the safety of eating its flesh, which was given a clean bill of health by the FDA's scientists. At issue are the potential ecological consequences should fish escape. The salmon would be the first GM animal of any type to be approved for human consumption

Farmed fish can wreak havoc if they get into the wild. Large numbers of Atlantic salmon have escaped and are breeding with their wild cousins, producing animals that are less likely to survive. Farmed Atlantic salmon have also escaped into Pacific waters, and there are fears that they may compete with native species of salmon.

Add genes from other species into the mix, and the potential risks become even greater, which explains why AquaBounty has faced formidable hurdles in bringing its salmon to market. The original plan, hatched more than a decade ago, was to grow the fish in conventional salmon farms, using net pens in coastal waters. The risks of escape were deemed unacceptable.


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