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Debate over GE Fish Heats Up

June 08, 2004


Research fuels fear of gene-altered fish

By Sandi Doughton
Seattle Times staff reporter

In a head-to-head battle for food, normal coho salmon lose out to their
genetically engineered cousins, says a new study that adds to the
controversy over what critics call "frankenfish."

Not only did the aggressive, gene-modified salmon gobble up most of the
feed when raised in tanks with ordinary salmon, but they also gobbled up
their weaker competitors < including their own type, British Columbia
scientists reported in yesterday's online edition of the Proceedings of
the National Academy of Sciences.

The results were often dramatic population crashes, with only one or two
of the genetically modified fish surviving in tanks that originally held
50 animals, said lead author Robert Devlin of Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

"When food supplies are low, transgenic (genetically modified) fish have
a very significant effect on the population," he said, adding the caveat
that laboratory experiments may not predict what would happen if
bioengineered salmon escaped into the environment.

But that's a question that needs to be answered soon.

Massachusetts-based Aqua Bounty Farms has asked the U.S. Food and Drug
Administration for approval to market what could be the first transgenic
food fish: Atlantic salmon that grow twice as fast as normal fish. Aqua
Bounty hopes to raise its transgenic salmon in coastal net pens in the
United States and market the eggs around the world, said Joseph
McGonigle, vice president for external affairs. "We are constantly
hearing from companies that are interested in it," he said.

Faster-growing salmon would cut costs dramatically for fish farmers and
lead to lower prices in the supermarket, McGonigle said.

Consumer groups, commercial fishermen and some scientists say studies
such as Devlin's show the potential ecological consequences of
unleashing man-made breeds of fish.

Although gene-modified fish grow much faster than normal coho salmon,
they don't get much bigger at maturity, researchers say.

"We should not be taking a risk like this at a time when native salmon
stocks are already in trouble," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, senior
scientist at the Center for Food Safety, a consumer group based in
Washington, D.C.

A 2002 National Academy of Sciences report expressed moderate concern
that genetically engineered fish might pose risks to consumers if, for
example, a person who was allergic to scallops ate fish with a scallop
gene spliced into its DNA. But experts agreed that the biggest danger is
that some of the gene-modified fish would inevitably escape into the

Hundreds of thousands of Atlantic salmon have escaped into Northwest
waters from salmon farms over the past several years when floating pens
were ripped apart by storms or marauding sea lions.

The worst-case scenario involving transgenic fish is the "Trojan gene"
hypothesis proposed by Purdue University geneticist William Muir:
Genetically engineered salmon outcompete normal fish for food and mates,
leading to less-hardy hybrids and the eventual extinction of the entire
wild population.

McGonigle says the net pens would hold only sterile females, eliminating
the possibility that escapees could breed in the wild. Several other
studies, including some in Devlin's lab, have shown that the genetically
engineered fish aren't likely to survive well outside of captivity
because they're more susceptible to disease and oblivious to predators.

"We realize we have no chance of getting approval unless we can clearly
demonstrate these fish are completely sterile, and they represent no
genetic threat and no behavioral threat, in terms of competition for
resources," he said.

Washington's Fish and Wildlife Commission banned genetically engineered
fish from marine net pens, but the state has no rules that bar them from
land-based tanks or fresh water, said John Kerwin, who manages the
state's hatchery program. Oregon has similar restrictions, while
California bans the creatures entirely < including the fluorescent Glo
Fish, a genetically engineered aquarium fish that went on sale last year.

Devlin's research for the Canadian government is attempting to unravel
the possible impacts of genetically engineered food fish before they're

"We're just starting to gather the kinds of laboratory information which
we hope will provide us with understanding about these animals," he said.

He works with coho salmon that overproduce growth hormone as a result of
genetic tinkering. Aqua Bounty's Atlantic salmon were engineered in a
similar way, using genes from chinook salmon and a species called ocean

In both cases, the genetically engineered fish grow much faster than
ordinary fish but don't get much bigger at maturity.

At 1 year of age, Devlin's gene-engineered fish are 10 times the size of
ordinary coho.

For the study reported yesterday, Devlin and his colleagues manipulated
the amount of food available to the fish. When food was abundant, normal
and genetically modified fish coexisted well. It was only when food was
scarce that competition turned deadly for the normal fish.

While populations made up only of normal fish were able to ride out food
shortages, mixed populations invariably crashed.

But the experiments also revealed another wrinkle: Populations made up
of only genetically engineered fish also crashed when food supplies were

Does that mean transgenic fish might pose little risk if they escaped
into the environment because they would die out when food supplies drop?

It's possible, Devlin said.

"If you had a small population, where the fish couldn't migrate out of
the area, transgenic fish might eat themselves out of house and home and
there would be no risks," he said.

But on the other hand, if numbers boomed when food was plentiful, the
bioengineered fish could devastate normal fish in the cutthroat
competition that would ensue.

McGonigle says he hopes to have an FDA ruling within the next two years,
but the target date has been pushed back repeatedly.

Because of regulations to protect businesses, the agency's evaluation
process is largely secret, leading critics to call for a new system that
is open and gives more authority to environmental and wildlife agencies.

"FDA has absolutely no experience with these kinds of issues," said
Gurian-Sherman, the Center for Food Safety scientist. "And we know
nothing about what they're doing."

Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or