There was a time when all living things in heaven and earth were created by the hand of God, or a product of evolution, depending on you philosophical belief. That time is now gone, never to return. The creation of biogenetically engineered animals is becoming more and more common place. To date over 660 patents have been issued for genetically manipulated animals in United States alone and the number is increasing every year.
There was no such thing as a glofish just a little over a decade ago. And just why would anyone want to make a fish glow in the first place? Believe it or not, the answer was not to strike it rich because every aquarium owner on the planet will feel the need to rush out and buy one. The Glofish was created to answer a higher calling. For Dr. Zhiyuan Gong and his colleagues at the National University of Singapore (NSU) the goal was quite simple, and perhaps even noble. The idea was to genetically engineer a fish that would glow when it came into contact with environmental toxins in any inland freshwater ecosystem. A fish that detects and by default identifies the manufacturing facilities and corporations that are poisoning our planet’s most valuable resource, how cool is that?
So exactly what is involved in creating a species that is biologically designed to help save the planet? The logical first step is to engineer a fish that glows to begin with. Once you have a fish that glows then you can set about tackling the issue of selective bioluminescence.
Among the many decisions faced by the geneticists was which fish should be chosen as the most likely candidate. The team decided on a small minnow variety, the Brachydanio reri. These fish are more commonly known as zebra danio or zebrafish throughout most of the world. Although indigenous to India, zebrafish are raised on fish farms for export in Singapore. A commercially raised fish means readily accessible eggs. This may or may not have been a determining factor in their selection.
With the selection process complete it was now time to initiate phase one of the process of creating the world’s fist aquatic toxic avenger. The genetics team integrated a bioluminescent gene found in crystal jellyfish known as GFP (Green Flourescent Protein) into a fertilized zebrafish egg and allowed it to gestate. The introduction of this gene into the embryo’s genome produced fluorescent green zebrafish. Experimentation with a variation of GFP resulted in yellow fluorescing fish. RFP (Red Flourescent Protein) found in certain species of sea coral added yet another twist in the spectrum of what was soon to be called Glofish.
The creation of the world’s first florescent fish was bound to draw some attention. It did not take long for news of NUS’s success to reach the desks of entrepreneurs Alan Blake and Richard Crockett. They wasted no time in sewing up exclusive worldwide rights for the sell of Glofish. Yorktown Technologies of Austin, Texas then went to work commercially raising Glofish for the thriving aquarium trade industry. Fortunately for Blake and Crockett, fish farms for the production of zebra danios had been in existence in the southern parts of United States since as early as the 30s. It was not much of a leap to raise a species that is only a single gene removed.
Exactly what happens when corporate entities start announcing their intentions to unleash bioengineered transgenic organisms upon an unwary planet? Is this just an ultra-cool novelty item predestined to become a favorite among aquarium owners around the world? Or are we in fact letting a bioengineered genie escape from the bottle never to be returned? Once you allow the sell of a single transgenic organism on the open market the precedent has been set. Glofish could just as easily be construed as Frankenfish as they could be perceived as harmless new variety of aquarium fish. Many nations had already foreseen the eventual marketing of biologically manipulated organisms and had enacted legislation to prevent such an “atrocity” from ever happening. Those that did not took swift and decisive action. Even before Golfish were available for sale they were banned in Europe, Japan, Australia, Canada and California despite over two years of extensive ecological risk assessment studies preformed by Yorktown Technologies.
From an ecological standpoint, this is not simply a matter of genetic engineering. The southern platyfish, a native of Central America, is wreaking havoc in Hong Kong’s freshwater ecosystems because of aquarium trade related releases into the wild. Its genetic cousin, the swordtail (Xiphophorus helleri) is endemic to both North and South America. Swordtails prefer the swift moving water and heavy vegetation of tropical rivers and streams but can make themselves right at home in creeks and canals. Consequently, they can adapt to a multitude of freshwater ecosystems. The swordtail’s prolific breeding has wreaked havoc on previously uninhabited ecosystems. Feral populations are significant in both Africa and Australia. This nuisance species has caused serious ecological damage on two continents. It is for this very reason that the sell of piranhas is illegal in most of the United States. If a seemingly harmless species such as swordtails and platyfish can inflict such damage on pre-established ecosystem one doesn’t even want to consider what would happen if one of the most fearsome predators on the face of the planet was suddenly introduced at the top of the food chain. Point of fact: The sell and ownership of piranhas was legal in the U.S. until piranha specimens were discovered in the wild most likely after their intentional release because they had outgrown their fish tanks.
Do Glofish pose a threat? The end of World War II marked beginning of an explosion in the aquarium trade industry. There is only a single gene separating Glofish from their natural counterpart, zebra danio. Over 200 million of these fish have been imported and sold in the U.S. alone over the past half century. Zebrafish are incapable of surviving the temperate water conditions in all but the most southern states. To date, there has not been a single report of an established reproducing population in the wild anywhere in the United States.
A lot has happened since Glofish first hit the market in 2003. In the name of progress scientists have created fluorescing pigs, rabbits, dogs and cats. I’m not sure how I would react if I suddenly realized that my daughter’s cat just gave birth to a litter of kittens that glowed under a black light. Although I’m willing to bet that she would think it was the coolest thing since Sponge Bob Square Pants. Fish, on the other hand, can not impregnate an entire neighborhood if left to prowl freely. If the zebra danio was adaptable enough to become one of the ever growing number of nuisance species as a result of their global exportation they would already be on the list. While the sale of a genetically altered fish simply because they look prettier than their “natural” counterparts may be ethically questionable, they are strikingly beautiful fish. It almost begs the question, “How many times have you upgraded a cell phone in perfect working order simply because the new model looked cooler, was more compact, or everyone in the office had a newer model than yours?”