Andreas Späth

Unleashing the Frankenfish

2013-06-05 07:08

Andreas Späth

If you've been following the debate about the pros and cons of genetically modified (GM) crops, like pesticide resistant maize and soybeans (read my most recent rant on the issue here), it probably won't take a whole lot of imagination to work out the biotech industry's next big project. That's rights: GM animals.

First up is the GM salmon. In August 2010 the US Food and Drug Administration began the process of assessing the so-called AquAdvantage® Salmon (is it just me or is that a really silly name?) for commercial production and human consumption. About a month ago, the public consultation phase came to an end and a decision is imminent.

The AquAdvantage® Salmon (say it out loud now: "AquAdvantage") was created by a Boston-based company called AquaBounty Technologies by combining the growth hormone gene of a Chinook salmon with genetic material from an ocean pout, an eel-like creature, and then mashing up the product with the DNA of an Atlantic salmon.

The result is a GM Atlantic salmon that produces growth hormone all year long, not just in the summer, as is normal for ordinary Atlantic salmon. The AquAdvantage® Salmon grows twice as fast, potentially improving the production turnover of commercial salmon farmers while simultaneously cutting down on costs.

If approved, AquaBounty Technologies plans to sell AquAdvantage® Salmon eggs to fish farmers, just like Monsanto and others currently sell agricultural GM seeds to grain farmers.

One obvious question that presents itself is: what would happen if this newly "improved" Frankenfish were to breed with ordinary salmon in the wild?

AquaBounty Technologies assures us that more than 98% of its AquAdvantage® Salmon brood is sterile, preventing it from interbreeding with wild salmon. Besides, they will only sell eggs to licensed and strictly monitored fish farms.

But mass escapes from commercial fish farms aren’t exactly rare. In 2010, for instance, an estimated 100 000 farmed Atlantic salmon made a get-away through a single hole in a net at a commercial fish farm in the UK. And what about the more than 1% of AquAdvantage® Salmon that are fertile.

The fact is that we don't really understand what risks GM animals present to wild populations and ecosystems. Scientists are only discovering some of the potential consequences now.

In 2011, Canadian researchers demonstrated that GM Atlantic salmon can breed with natural-born salmon, transferring their manipulated genes into wild populations.

Last Wednesday, the same group of scientists published a peer-reviewed paper which shows that GM Atlantic salmon are able to breed with closely related brown trout in nature, producing healthy and viable hybrid offspring.

What's really worrying about these latest results is that the artificially engineered growth hormone gene didn't just get transferred to the crossbred hybrid, but that the resulting fish was even faster-growing and more competitive than its GM parent.

Produced under conditions that simulate both natural stream and commercial hatchery environments, the hybrids "grew more rapidly than transgenic [i.e. GM] salmon and other non-transgenic crosses", and they "appeared to express competitive dominance and suppressed the growth of transgenic and non-transgenic (wild type) salmon by 82% and 54% respectively".

While the authors of the study acknowledge that GM hybrids would probably be quite rare in nature, they emphasise that if they maintained their competitive advantage, they "could detrimentally effect wild salmon populations". The potential ecological consequences remain unknown.

The story doesn't end with GM salmon though. If the AquAdvantage® Salmon is approved for commercial use, we can expect a whole menagerie of genetically-fiddled-with farm animals in the near future. As many as 30 fish species, including GM trout, GM cod and GM tilapia, as well as GM pigs, GM chickens, GM goats and GM cows are "under development".

Can we really expect an industry that struggles to keep something as immobile as a seed confined to dedicated test fields (unapproved Monsanto GM wheat mysteriously made its way into a field in Oregon recently), to keep a variety of energetic critters safely locked up in assorted ponds, pens, barns and pastures?

I doubt it. And the potential consequences for biodiversity and natural ecosystems are nauseating to contemplate.

- Andreas freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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