Super salmon?


Stuart Hirsch, SeaFood Business contributing editor

Published on
December 5, 2010

Despite a barrage of criticism from consumer and environmental advocates, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration early next year could approve the first transgenic farm animal designed for human consumption — a fast-growing Atlantic salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies.

For well over a decade, crops such as corn and soybeans have been genetically modified using precise biotechnology methods to deter pests, prevent disease and better?tolerate cold temperatures, drought and herbicides. Using that same science with animals to achieve certain traits has taken longer to develop — the common practice now is much slower and less precise selective breeding — but genetic engineering could usher in an entirely new approach to animal husbandry, whether it’s farmed fish or livestock.

“The concept of genetic improvement goes back a long, long time,” says Ronald Stotish, CEO of AquaBounty in Waltham, Mass., which has invested approximately $60 million to get its GM salmon approved. “Now, there is an opportunity to very precisely alter genomes for specific traits. Not only is this the latest and most precise form of genetic modification, it is also the most regulated. That should be reassuring ?to people.”

But it is not. AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon eggs are at ?the leading edge of this new world in food production. As such, they've become a lightning rod for consumer, animal welfare and fishing and environmental groups critical of genetically engineered animals. Supporters say transgenic fish will make aquaculture more efficient and future supplies more abundant, but critics argue that food suppliers shouldn't be messing with nature.

AquaBounty began developing the fish to help meet worldwide demand for a high-quality source of protein without harming the environment or further depleting wild fisheries, says Stotish. What allows the AquAdvantage salmon to grow to market size in 18 months, rather than the usual 36 months required for traditional farmed Atlantic salmon, is the inclusion of a growth hormone gene from the chinook salmon, plus a genetic switch taken from the ocean pout (an Arctic, eel-like fish that produces an antifreeze protein in its liver to allow it to endure cold waters) that activates it. Salmon normally only produce growth hormone in warm weather, but AquaBounty’s genetic alteration allows it to occur even in cold weather. In all other respects the fish are identical to other Atlantic salmon, farmed or wild, Stotish says.

The fish would be raised in inland tanks with sophisticated containment procedures and mechanisms, which according to AquaBounty sharply reduce the chance of environmental harm to wild species. In addition, about 98 percent of the fish would be sterile, and all of them would be female, Stotish adds.

To read the rest of the story about genetically modified salmon, click here. Written by SeaFood Business Contributing Editor Stuart Hirsch, the feature appeared in the December issue of SeaFood Business magazine.

To reach SeaFood Business Editor-in-Chief Fiona Robinson’s 19 November commentary “Fishmeal the X factor in GM salmon saga,” click here.

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