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Source: SF Chronicle (October 17, 2000)

Salmon to Set Biotech Precedent FDA must rule on whether gene-spliced fish can be eaten for dinner

by Marc Kaufman, Washington Post

Tuesday, October 17, 2000

Fortune, Prince Edwards Island --

Amid the winding coves and family farms that grace this Canadian province sits an unassuming, dimly lit warehouse. But inside, a technological revolution is under way.

The first animals genetically engineered for American dinner plates are being raised here -- salmon spliced with genes that make them grow two to four times faster than nature's best.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is reviewing an application to sell the fish, a decision that will probably influence the fate of scores of other biotech animals now being brought to life in dozens of similar labs around the world for humans to eat.

In the pipeline are pigs engineered to have less fat, chicken designed to resist illness-causing bacteria and beef that can grow twice as fast on less feed. Advocates say animal biotechnology can supply abundant food at increasingly low cost.

But with opponents of genetic engineering already questioning whether soybeans and corn endowed with new genes are safe for people and the environment, the prospect of a genetically engineered animal has sparked intense controversy.

``This has gotten so much bigger than we ever imagined,'' said Arnold Sutterlin, an aquaculture specialist with A/F Protein, an American-Canadian company that is producing the salmon. ``We just thought we were making a better fish.''

The company says there is nothing mysterious about what it is doing. To create the salmon, scientists spliced into their eggs a growth gene from the Arcticpout, a fish that thrives in very cold water. That gene allows the salmon to act like a colder water fish, which means its growth promoter genes remain more active than a normal salmon.

But some scientists worry that not enough is known about such fish to risk the damage that their release into the wild could cause.

The stakes are especially high in the case of the salmon because both wild Atlantic salmon and some species of Pacific salmon are depleted or even officially endangered -- the result of decades of overfishing and habitat destruction. These wild fish now share many of the same waters as the millions of salmon growing in fish farms along the northern Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and many scientists are concerned about what might happen if the engineered salmon escape.

The most prominent reason for concern is the ``Trojan gene'' hypothesis of Purdue University's William Muir. Using a different kind of genetically engineered fish, Muir found that larger, faster-growing biotech fish are more likely to succeed in mating than conventional fish. But the offspring of those biotech fish are genetically less well adapted to survive. Consequently, Muir believes, biotech fish could quickly decimate a fish population by their increased ability to produce damaged young. Muir has proposed further research into this hypothesis but has been unable to get funding.

Elliot Entis, president of A/F Protein, says that his company's studies have not found that their salmon end up being larger than wild salmon at sexual maturity, meaning they would not have a mating advantage. He also calls the Trojan gene hypothesis beside the point: Fish breeding technology can render the biotech fish almost 100 percent female and infertile, he said, and that means they simply can't reproduce.

Officials said it will take at least a year to finish the required human health and environmental studies, though others predict considerably longer.

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