Some see fluorescent fish as neon signs of trouble
By John Keilman
Tribune staff reporter
Published January 12, 2004
Past the shark lagoon and piranha tanks at a Park Ridge pet store
dart tiny fish that some consider far more alarming.
The glowing red and green swimmers at the Living Sea Aquarium
represent the vanguard in the brave new world of genetically
engineered pets being sold across the United States. Marketed
under such names as "Night Light Fish" and selling for up to $30
apiece, they gleam like inch-long neon signs, thanks to DNA
transferred from sea coral and jellyfish.
The fish have existed for years and have been deemed safe by
numerous scientists and government agencies. But their recent
introduction to the American public--and the lack of regulations
covering them--makes some people worry what other manmade
critters might follow.
"Not to make a pun, but I think it's shedding a light on serious
regulatory and safety issues that are not getting much attention,"
said Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University
of Pennsylvania. "This is going to be a very important issue. The fish
is just the first wave on the beach."
The species that has jump-started the debate over genetically
altered pets is the GloFish. Yorktown Technologies, an Austin,
Texas-based company, has sold it for a month and rolled it out
nationally last week at a suggested price of $5 per fish.
The GloFish's red glimmer comes from a coral gene that was added
to the embryo of a normal zebra fish, said Alan Blake, Yorktown's
chief executive officer. Scientists in Singapore came up with the idea
to monitor water quality, trying to get the fish to glow in the presence
Yorktown got the right to sell the fish in the U.S., but consulted with
scientists and federal agencies for two years before offering it to
hobbyists, Blake said.
FDA passes on fish
Food and Drug Administration officials said they didn't need to
regulate the fish because people would not eat them, and because
there was no evidence of an environmental threat. Scientists who
reviewed research for California's Fish and Game Commission said
the fish, if released into the wild, was unlikely to survive in the state's
relatively cold waters.
Despite those findings, the commission last month still refused to
exempt the GloFish from California's ban on genetically engineered
aquatic creatures, imposed in May. Commissioner Sam Schuchat
wrote that "creating a novelty pet is a frivolous use of this
technology. No matter how low the risk is, there needs to be a public
benefit that is higher than this."
Blake responded that GloFish were a byproduct of serious research,
and that some of the proceeds would fund further studies, though a
company spokesman declined to say how much.
"We absolutely recognize that genetic technology carries with it
incredible potential and incredible responsibility," Blake said. "We
take that responsibility very seriously."
The potential environmental effects of the other genetically
engineered fish available in the U.S.--a rice fish whose implanted
jellyfish DNA causes it to glow green--have proven worrisome
elsewhere in the world. The Japanese government last year raised
concerns that it could disrupt native species.
Fish may be the first genetically altered creatures to reach the
marketplace, but others may not be far behind. A New York
company is trying to use gene splicing to create a cat that does not
The cloning expert doing the research, Dr. Jerry Yang of the
University of Connecticut, said funding problems have slowed the
work but that initial results are promising. He's been able to create
embryos that are missing the allergen gene.
He said his project was different from the glowing fish because
allergen-free cats can occasionally be found in nature.
"We don't think we're creating anything new," he said. "We're
creating existing animals."
Though Yang said his work is reviewed by university panels and
inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture,
critics say the government is not paying enough attention to
genetically engineered pets.
No single federal agency regulates transgenic animals, though
USDA officials say they are evaluating whether they should play a
role. Craig Culp of the Center for Food Safety, an advocacy group
that works to curb technologies it says are harmful to health, worries
that indifference could allow some altered species to get loose,
wreaking havoc on the environment and food supply.
"We're buying a fish that's been genetically engineered for our
amusement and putting it into our kids' bedrooms without thinking of
the ethical dimensions," he said. "It staggers the mind to think of
what could come down the pike."
Such concerns prompted California to restrict transgenic aquatic
animals to research use, and Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm has
three bills on her desk that would allow the state to outlaw certain
genetically engineered creatures.
"The GloFish is not our issue, but this technology could conceivably
create species that would threaten our native fish stock," said
spokesman Brad Wurfel of the Michigan Department of Natural
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is not considering a
similar step, officials said.
Some scientists fear that a public furor over transgenic pets could
harm more serious inquiries. "There is the potential of the public not
seeing the full application of genetic research," said Richard Winn, a
University of Georgia professor who uses genetically engineered fish
to examine the effects of pesticides and other chemicals. "If it seems
trivial or unnecessary or a Frankenfish, it makes people turn off or
be afraid of it."
The GloFish has been selling briskly around the country, according
to Yorktown Technologies. Sales of luminous fish have been good
but not overwhelming at the Living Sea Aquarium, where a tank
aglow with blue light accentuates their blazing color.
"I see it as a popular color variation, but I don't see it dominating,"
said manager Daryl Szyska. "There are so many species, why would
you limit yourself to one?"
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune