Andreas Späth

Of engineered salmon, cloned puppies and malaria-fighting mossies

2015-12-14 13:07

Andreas Wilson-Späth

If you’re like me, you prefer your menagerie of genetically engineered, cloned and otherwise humanly-messed-about-with creatures in books of fantastical fiction (like The Island of Dr Moreau) and Hollywood blockbusters (like the Jurassic Park franchise) instead of the wild.

Sadly, that perspective is not shared by most of the folks in the so-called biotech industry, who, despite persistent disapproval from the likes of you and me, insist on creating ever more of their chimeras and steadily letting them spill out into our world.

Those of us who have been concerned about such things have gotten used to the idea of genetically modified crops growing in our fields – some 70 to 80% of SA’s iconic millies aren’t quite what they used to be.

When it comes to engineering animals, ‘progress’ has been somewhat slower until recently. The poster-child here is the humble salmon, once the lifeblood and spiritual basis of entire nations along the coasts of North America as well as an integral part of an incredible natural mechanism that perpetually fertilises the adjacent hinterland, today, threatened by chronic overfishing and dams blocking the path to ancient spawning grounds.

Now science is busy writing a new chapter in the salmon’s story. Last month, after 20 years of development and outspoken public opposition, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) finally approved the first genetically engineered variety of salmon for human consumption. This comes after widespread concerns over possible long-term threats to public and environmental safety.

In the USA, this Frankenfish – sorry, the AquAdvantage salmon brought to you by AquaBounty Technologies – will be for sale next to its all-natural cousin without a label identifying it as genetically modified.

AquaBounty assures us that their invention grows faster with less food than real salmon and that all of the animals raised for food will be sterile females who won’t be able to interbreed with wild individuals should they escape from their high security breeding farms.

The AquAdvantage is expected to hit store shelves within the next two years, but some major US retailers and restaurant chains, including Safeway, Costco, Target, Whole Foods, Aldie, Trader Joe’s and Red Lobster, have already indicated that they will not be offering it to their customers.

Many opponents fear that the AquAdvantage’s official approval will clear the way for other commercial genetically engineered animals. Supporters of the technology argue that making genetically altered alternatives available for sale will take pressure of wild salmon populations. Cynics counter that the AquAdvantage, which grows to twice the size of real Atlantic salmon, will threaten the wild species if they escape captivity.

As a prime example of the privatisation of living organisms, the patented fish stands to net its owners healthy profits as a reward for being first at ‘enclosing’ its genetic code and bolting some proprietary ‘improvements’ onto it.

Meanwhile in China, another biotech endeavour promises to bring us cloned animals of various species, shapes and sizes. Scheduled to start operations next year, BoyaLife’s state-of-the-art cloning factory in the city of Tianjin, is expected to manufacture 100 000 cloned cow embryos annually.

Meat and dairy products from cloned cows have been for sale commercially elsewhere, including Europe and the USA, for some time and Chinese scientists have been cloning pigs, sheep and cattle for years, but nothing quite measures up to the level of industrial-scale cloning proposed for this new project.

Beyond cows for beef production, the facility will also be working on cloned sniffer dogs, racehorses, pet dogs and ‘non-human primates’ (I’m glad they bothered to clarify that last one, although human embryo gene editing isn’t actually very far off).

Other genetically modified animals we can look forward to include a type of mosquito that can introduce malaria-blocking genes into mossie populations via interbreeding (in this instance, unlike the AquAdvantage salmon, the artificially modified animals would be intentionally released into the natural environment), while among the latest genetically altered crop plants to be approved for sale in the US, the Arctic apple stands out (unlike garden variety apples, it won’t turn brown within minutes after being sliced).

No matter what, if any, benefits humanity will accrue from all of these developments, the deeper is issue is this: we really don’t understand the future consequences of artificially modifying living organisms and releasing them into the wild. Nature has had billions of years (perhaps more than four billion years) to evolve not only a myriad of incredibly complex individual species, but also the fantastically intricate and mutually interrelated ecosystems in which they exist.

If we oh-so-clever humans really think that we are capable of manufacturing anything even remotely comparable without potentially devastating side effects and if we can’t use our undoubted ingenuity to come up with better ways to solve our many problems, I’d suggest we need our heads read.

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

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