Genetically engineered salmon under FDA consideration

AquaBounty is seeking FDA approval for a genetically engineered fish that reaches market weight in half the usual time. Some in the industry are leery.

Photo: AquaBounty facility

AquaBounty, which would sell genetically altered eggs if its proposal is approved, says its fish would be sterile and it intends to require producers to raise its salmon inland. (AquaBounty / August 14, 2010)

By Andrew Zajac, Tribune Washington Bureau

August 14, 2010

Reporting from Washington —

With a global population pressing against food supplies and vast areas of the ocean swept clean of fish, tiny AquaBounty Technologies Inc. of Waltham, Mass., says it can help feed the world.
The firm has developed genetically engineered salmon that reach market weight in half the usual time. What’s more, it hopes to avoid the pollution, disease and other problems associated with saltwater fish farms by having its salmon raised in inland facilities.
The Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve what would be the nation’s first commercial genetically modified food animal.

"This is the threshold case. If it’s approved, there will be others," said Eric Hallerman, head of the fisheries and wildlife sciences department at Virginia Tech University. "If it’s not, it’ll have a chilling effect for years."
Some in the fish farming industry are leery of the move toward engineered fish.
"No! It is not even up for discussion," Jorgen Christiansen, director of communications for Oslo-based Marine Harvest, one of the world’s largest salmon producers, wrote in an e-mail.
Christiansen said his company worries "that consumers would be reluctant to buy genetically modified fish, regardless of good food quality and food safety."
Some critics call AquaBounty’s salmon "Frankenfish." Others say the effort is pointless.
"I don’t see the necessity of it," said Casson Trenor of Greenpeace USA — which opposes all genetically modified organisms, including plants. "We don’t need to build a new fish."
The FDA has completed its review of key portions of AquaBounty’s application, according to Chief Executive Ronald Stotish. Within weeks, the company expects the agency to convene an advisory committee of outside experts to weigh evidence, collect public testimony and issue a recommendation about the fish’s fitness for human consumption.
The process could take months or more — which still sounds like progress to the company after its 14-year, $50-million investment.
Manipulating natural processes is a fact of life in most of the world’s food supplies. Cattle, hogs, poultry and most grain and vegetable crops have been extensively altered through selective breeding and hybridization — including turkeys with so much white meat they can barely stand, drought- and disease-resistant wheat, and fruits and vegetables that resist bruising or spoiling.
But genetic engineering — especially perhaps of animals — is different, at least in the public mind.
"The thought of genetic engineering sort of excites the idea that there might be a kind of boundary-crossing going on that might be yucky," said Paul Thompson, an agricultural ethicist at Michigan State University.

AquaBounty Technologies salmon, in background, reaches an 8-pound market weight in 18 months instead of 36.

Unlike ordinary salmon, AquaBounty’s genetically modified fish grows during the winter as well as the summer, so it reaches an 8-pound market weight in 18 months instead of 36. That’s accomplished by inserting part of a gene from an eel-like creature called the ocean pout into the growth gene of a Chinook salmon, then injecting the blended genetic material into the fertilized eggs of a North Atlantic salmon.
"This is a single gene and it’s a salmon gene in a salmon," said Stotish, a biochemist and pharmaceutical researcher who joined AquaBounty in 2006 and became CEO two years later.
The salmon is identical in taste, color, protein and other attributes of a non-engineered North Atlantic salmon, he said, and consumes up to 25% less food over its lifetime. The AquaBounty salmon don’t get bigger than other salmon; they just grow to full size faster.
Christiansen isn’t the only person in the industry to recoil.
"We do not support it.… We wouldn’t consider changing that unless the market demanded it and all government regulators say it’s safe," said Nell Halse, president of the International Salmon Farmers Assn.
On the other hand, the National Fisheries Institute, the main trade association of U.S. seafood producers, supports "the use of biotechnology in the production of genetically engineered fish," subject to FDA safety assessments, spokesman Gavin Gibbons said.
AquaBounty, which would sell genetically altered eggs, says its fish would be sterile and it intends to require producers to raise its salmon inland.
The idea is to prevent cross-breeding with wild fish. Most farmed salmon are kept in ocean pens, where wild and confined fish can infect each other with disease — and where escapees can join the gene pool, producing offspring less suited to the open ocean.
If AquaBounty’s fish are raised in inland tanks, wild populations should be protected.
But an FDA advisory panel may be forced to consider the effect of the fish on wild populations nonetheless, because of the possibility of escapes, failed sterilization of eggs and sales to producers overseas, out of reach of U.S. regulators.
Opponents point to a 1999 study suggesting that genetically modified salmon could lead to less hardy hybrids. But the study’s co-author, William Muir, an animal science professor at Purdue University, said the findings did not apply to the AquaBounty fish.
Based on current knowledge, AquaBounty salmon "don’t pose any more of a threat to wild salmon than other farmed salmon," Muir said.
But there are unknowns, he acknowledged. Muir likened it to the introduction of a drug, which may show side effects in the general population that didn’t arise in clinical trials.
"The disadvantage is that recalling a drug is a lot easier than recapturing a fish," Muir said.
One key to consumer acceptance may be whether the salmon is labeled as genetically modified.
Stotish says he’d have no problem with a voluntary label affixed by salmon producers, but fears a mandatory label would look like a warning. In the past, the FDA has taken the position that required labeling should contain only information on content, not how an item was produced.
If the project gets the FDA’s blessing, bioethicist Gregory Kaebnick of the nonprofit Hastings Center thinks the transition may be fairly easy for consumers.
"It’s not putting a jellyfish gene into a tomato. It’s not giving it a radically new property, like making it glow," he said. "In the long run, I think people are going to get used to this kind of thing."

Genetically modified crops pop up in the wild

The discovery of canola in North Dakota raises concern that engineered plants could take over native species and cause hardy ‘superweeds’ to develop.


"The canola study is a signal that gene movement into the environment is a general phenomenon," said an agricultural biotechnology scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. (Charlie Riedel, Associated Press /June 6, 2006)

By Rachel Bernstein, Los Angeles Times

August 13, 2010|6:37 p.m.

Genetic engineering has been hailed as a tool to produce crops that are left unharmed by weed-killing pesticides and that are more productive than their forebears. But critics have worried that modified plants might take over land used by native species and that increasingly hardy "superweeds" may develop. A new study supports some of these fears, detailing an abundance of genetically modified canola crops found outside cultivation in North Dakota.
The so-called feral canola is the first report of a genetically modified crop found in the wild in the U.S., although another genetically engineered plant designed for golf putting greens, creeping bentgrass, was found in Oregon in 2004. Feral modified canola has also shown up in the last decade in Canada, Germany, France, Britain, Japan and Australia.
In the U.S., 90% to 95% of commercially grown canola is genetically modified to be herbicide resistant; the researchers said that 80% of the wild canola identified in the most recent discovery had at least one of two herbicide-resistance genes.

Furthermore, a small number of the plants contained both genes, although plants containing both have never been commercially released. The combination’s existence suggests that engineered genes can be highly mobile and could potentially be transferred to pernicious weeds, although canola has few weedy relatives.
"The canola study is a signal that gene movement into the environment is a general phenomenon," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, an agricultural biotechnology scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization that focuses on environmental issues.
This phenomenon means that the original benefit of the genetic engineering is ultimately lost, he says, forcing farmers to come up with new ways to control weeds — such as turning to the more toxic, longer-lasting herbicides used in the past.
"The effectiveness of the technology breaks down over time," Gurian-Sherman said, "and as it moves forward to genes that can have a bigger impact on the environment, these gene-movement issues will be more and more important."
The study’s researchers, who presented their research last week at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting, were more measured in their response. "The first message is, don’t freak out, but let’s figure out what’s going on," said Cynthia Sagers, the University of Arkansas ecologist who led the study. An obvious question is what will happen if, or when, these novel traits get into native species.
But one of the next steps, she said, is to investigate whether herbicide use is connected to the canola’s spread. The conventional wisdom is that these chemicals are used only on agricultural fields, where they kill weeds but leave the engineered crop unharmed — but it’s possible that the herbicides are also spreading beyond the farms, perhaps allowing the modified canola to survive where native plants can’t.
The finding and the unanswered questions take on added weight with researchers working to produce plants resistant to drought or disease. Such versions could produce hardier crops, but also increasingly dangerous weeds.
The concerns go beyond genetic engineering. Traditional breeding has recently produced drought-tolerant corn and sorghum; if these genes are introduced to weeds, the result would be the same, regardless of whether the source was genetic engineering or traditional breeding.
"Genetically engineered crops and non-genetically engineered crops tend to create the same classes of problems," said UC Riverside plant geneticist Norm Ellstrand.

Copyright © 2010, Los Angeles Times