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Monday,22 November,2010 09:20:53
As a scientist with a strong applied research lean, I follow many issues that I believe may eventually prove to have some economic benefits. As a graduate student working with a pathogen of salmon, the tools I had for genetic manipulation consisted of chemicals that were known to act on genetic material in a known manner and then the use of simple tools for finding the alterations in genetic material that I was looking for. Today this technology is archaic. We can introduce genes into animals where we want them to be and can control how they work, turning them on and off when we want to. Plants have been the target of much of this work in the last few years and genetically modified plants (GMO) are in widespread use and widely consumed by most Americans and have been for some time with no indications of harm (although admittedly this is a complex issue and assuming that there is no potential for problems is naïve.. we need to be vigilant).
About 15 years ago, I was involved in a project where we were looking at the potential for adding a gene to cultured shrimp that would make the animal resistant to a virus that was decimating farmed shrimp globally. The end result of the project was the knowledge that genes could be stably transferred into shrimp. This important first step has led the way for others to genetically alter shrimp in any number of ways. The question I kept posing to my employer was who will buy these shrimp? His answer was that the need for farmers to have an animal resistant to a virus with the potential for a large economic impact will drive it and that the consumers will not know since there is no requirement that GMO materials be labeled as such. With fish, there have been many successful reports of genetic manipulation in a number of species including multiple species of carp, salmonids including rainbow trout, Tilapia and others and we are now appearing to be on the verge of the commercialization of a genetically engineered Atlantic salmon.
Despite the FDA stating that these fish are safe to eat, there are some unanswered questions and in a recent report from the Consumers Union these questions were posed in a clear and concise manner. There are concerns about the size of the samples tested to verify safety and the impact of elevated growth hormone levels in the fish on levels of Insulin Growth Factor, as well as concerns about the potential for allergic reactions between triploid and diploid fish.
Proposals to prevent any negative environmental impact by producing sterile fish were met with some skepticism as well, as it is difficult to create with absolute certainty 100% single sex or 100% guaranteed sterile. It makes more sense to produce them in land locked systems where escape, short of deliberate acts of sabotage, is not possible.
These challenges will be met though and it is only a matter of time before we see fish of this type in the market place. Some of the work to date has brought about some very interesting results. Fish have been produced that grow many times faster than the wild type, in some cases as much as 30 times faster. From a strictly economic point of view, the ability to shorten a production cycle by a third, a half or even more is such that it seems inevitable that these animals will find their way into the market place. Add to this the attractiveness of an animal that resists diseases and whose meat may contain high levels of nutrients that are desirable (such as astaxanthin, certain fatty acids, etc.) then the potential economic benefits are significant. It is only a matter of when, not if fish (and other animals) find their way into the market place. We have a choice to allow this research to occur in the US and for us to reap its benefits or for other countries to take the lead. At the very least we should be engaging in dialogues that are oriented towards allowing GM fish and/or crustaceans to enter the market place with safety and environmental impact concerns clearly addressed. Given the widespread use of GMO plants it makes little sense to block the use of animals.
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