Do genetically modified fruits and vegetables make you uneasy? Get ready for transgenic salmon, set to become the first genetically modified animal to be approved by the FDA. AquaBounty, the company behind the salmon, claims that its AquaAdvantage salmon reaches market size twice as fast as regular salmon (16 to 18 months).
The transgenic salmon is a mash-up of Atlantic salmon, a growth hormone gene from the chinook salmon, and an "on-switch" gene from the ocean pout that triggers the fish to eat year round, according to The Olympian. AquaBounty doesn't plan to sell the actual salmon. Instead, the company will sell fish eggs to farmers.
Despite its initial frankenfish creepiness, AquaBounty's salmon has a number of advantages. By shortening the salmon growing cycle, AquaAdvantage salmon make it easiest for farmers to cash in on their bounty. The fish can also be raised inland, reducing the need for ocean-based pens. And the company claims that its transgenic salmon are sterile, so they won't threaten the already-dwindling populations of wild fish.
Not everyone believes AquaBounty's assurances. The Center for Food Safety questions AquaBounty's claim that its fish are actually sterile. If they aren't, the consequences could be disastrous—a Purdue University study claims that just 60 transgenic fish bred in a population of 60,000 wild fish could cause the wild variety to go extinct in 40 generations.
AquaBounty defends against these allegations on its Web site:
Muir and Howard, the Purdue scientists who proposed the "Trojan Gene Hypothesis," did not study AquAdvantage Salmon. They designed a mathematical model based on the behavior of Japanese medaka, a small freshwater fish that matures in 56 days and breeds daily until it dies. Salmon take three, five and even ten years to mature and most breed only once in their lifetimes. AquaBounty has further stipulated that it will market only sterile, all female AquAdvantage Salmon. Since these fish are unable to reproduce, there can be no gene flow to wild salmon.
Like it or not, transgenic salmon is probably close to approval. The FDA could schedule a public hearing as early as this fall—a sign that the organization is close to approving the product. And if AquaAdvantage salmon is approved, AquaBounty plans to move on to transgenic trout and tilapia. It's bad news for food purists, perhaps, but fish lovers may soon rely on transgenic species if overfishing of wild varieties continues.