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New Wave of Frankenfoods: Gene Altered Fish & Animals

PUBLICATION The Calgary Herald
DATE Mon 24 Apr 2000
SECTION/CATEGORY News
PAGE NUMBER A1 / FRONT
BYLINE Times of London

Giant lobster could be food of the future

They could call it Claws. Geneticists in the U.S. are creating the
world's biggest lobster after discovering how to block the genes that limit
animals' natural growth.

In secret laboratory experiments, they have also applied the technique
to make giant chickens, sheep and pigs and are attempting to do the same
with cattle.

The results could revolutionize livestock and fish farming, creating a
new generation of animals whose genes have been altered in ways that could
mean up to double the meat yield.
Lobsters are among the species chosen to pioneer the technology because
of their high commercial value.

The experiments also have implications for animal-rights campaigners who
this weekend warned that such technology risked producing mutants that
would live their lives in pain and suffering.

The giant creatures are being developed by MetaMorphix, a company set up
by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in the United States. It was there
that Se-Jin Lee, professor of genetics, discovered the gene that
controls myostatin, a substance which regulates muscle growth.
He created a family of mice without the gene expecting them to have less
muscle than normal only to find that he had produced a breed of
super-mice. ``The mice are visually very dramatic, especially when you dissect them
and see the much bigger muscles,'' he said.
Since then, Lee and MetaMorphix have been working with livestock, such
as chickens, pigs, sheep and cattle, to see if the effect could be
repeated.

The data suggest the technique can accelerate rates of growth in all
those species by about 12 per cent and create adult animals up to 50 per cent
bigger than usual with a much higher proportion of muscle.
The MetaMorphix team has since devised ways to neutralize myostatin,
ranging from simple vaccines to genetic manipulation, to create mutant animals
that lack the controlling gene. The researchers also found that the gene was
common to a huge range of species meaning that the same approach could
be used in fish and even in shellfish.

That discovery has been used by Cape Aquaculture Technologies (Cat) of
Massachusetts, to create giant fish; trials are under way on lobsters
and shellfish. Robert Curtis, chief executive of Cat, said he could not
identify the fish species or reveal how large his lobsters would grow but added:
``Shrimps, mussels and scallops are also a possibility.''
Such research is usually conducted in secret. Fifteen years ago,
scientists at America's Department of Agriculture's research centre announced that
they had created the world's first transgenic livestock.

However, the public was not impressed when presented with mutant pigs
crippled by gastric ulcers, arthritis and other illnesses. Changes in
the genes affecting the way the animals grew had disastrous side effects.
The shocked reaction meant that almost all such research has since been
conducted away from the public eye. Among other disasters have been
giant salmon that grew far faster than normal, but then developed humpbacks
and green flesh.

Now, however, scientists believe the results are more acceptable. A
Canadian firm, Af Protein, has created a commercially viable transgenic super-
salmon by inserting a gene from Arctic char, which makes the fish grow faster
and larger.

Australian researchers at the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial
Research Organization (CSIRO) have created a flock of 120 transgenic
``ball-of-wool'' sheep which grow faster, need less food and produce far more wool than
normal. Dr. Kevin Ward, one of CSIRO's senior scientists, said: ``They
are strong, they grow faster and bigger but they eat the same amount of
grass todo it.''

In New Zealand, AgResearch, a government research agency, has created
the world's first herd of cloned cows from a ``parent'' renowned for the
vast amounts of milk she produced. Scientists there are also seeking
government permission to take a naturally occurring mutant gene isolated from
double-muscled Belgian blue cattle, which makes them grow exceptionally
large, and insert it into sheep.

Such experiments anger animal campaigners. Joyce D'Silva, director of
Compassion in World Farming, said: ``These innovations are a gross
mutilation of animal physiology. Scientists need to think not just about
what is possible but also about what is ethical.''