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Source: SF Chronicle (October 17, 2000)
Salmon to Set Biotech Precedent
FDA must rule on whether
gene-spliced fish can be eaten for
by Marc Kaufman, Washington Post
Tuesday, October 17, 2000
Fortune, Prince Edwards Island --
Amid the winding coves and family farms that grace
this Canadian province sits an unassuming, dimly lit
warehouse. But inside, a technological revolution is
The first animals genetically engineered for
American dinner plates are being raised here --
salmon spliced with genes that make them grow two
to four times faster than nature's best.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is
reviewing an application to sell the fish, a decision
that will probably influence the fate of scores of
other biotech animals now being brought to life in
dozens of similar labs around the world for humans
In the pipeline are pigs engineered to have less fat,
chicken designed to resist illness-causing bacteria
and beef that can grow twice as fast on less feed.
Advocates say animal biotechnology can supply
abundant food at increasingly low cost.
But with opponents of genetic engineering already
questioning whether soybeans and corn endowed
with new genes are safe for people and the
environment, the prospect of a genetically
engineered animal has sparked intense controversy.
``This has gotten so much bigger than we ever
imagined,'' said Arnold Sutterlin, an aquaculture
specialist with A/F Protein, an American-Canadian
company that is producing the salmon. ``We just
thought we were making a better fish.''
The company says there is nothing mysterious about
what it is doing. To create the salmon, scientists
spliced into their eggs a growth gene from the
Arcticpout, a fish that thrives in very cold water.
That gene allows the salmon to act like a colder
water fish, which means its growth promoter genes
remain more active than a normal salmon.
But some scientists worry that not enough is known
about such fish to risk the damage that their release
into the wild could cause.
The stakes are especially high in the case of the
salmon because both wild Atlantic salmon and some
species of Pacific salmon are depleted or even
officially endangered -- the result of decades of
overfishing and habitat destruction. These wild fish
now share many of the same waters as the millions
of salmon growing in fish farms along the northern
Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and many scientists are
concerned about what might happen if the
engineered salmon escape.
The most prominent reason for concern is the
``Trojan gene'' hypothesis of Purdue University's
William Muir. Using a different kind of genetically
engineered fish, Muir found that larger,
faster-growing biotech fish are more likely to
succeed in mating than conventional fish. But the
offspring of those biotech fish are genetically less
well adapted to survive. Consequently, Muir
believes, biotech fish could quickly decimate a fish
population by their increased ability to produce
damaged young. Muir has proposed further
research into this hypothesis but has been unable to
Elliot Entis, president of A/F Protein, says that his
company's studies have not found that their salmon
end up being larger than wild salmon at sexual
maturity, meaning they would not have a mating
advantage. He also calls the Trojan gene hypothesis
beside the point: Fish breeding technology can
render the biotech fish almost 100 percent female
and infertile, he said, and that means they simply
Officials said it will take at least a year to finish the
required human health and environmental studies,
though others predict considerably longer.
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