Monday, September 27, 2010

We can build whatever animal you want to eat, say scientists

TINKER with the genetics of salmon and maybe you create a revolutionary new food source that could help the environment and feed the hungry.

Or maybe you're creating what some say is an untested "frankenfish" that could cause unknown allergic reactions and the eventual decimation of the wild salmon population.

The US Food and Drug Administration hears both arguments this week when it begins a two-day meeting on whether to approve the marketing of the genetically engineered fish, which would be the first such animal approved for human consumption.

The agency has already said the salmon, which grows twice as fast as conventional salmon, is as safe to eat as the traditional variety.

Approval of the salmon would open the door for a variety of other genetically engineered animals, including an environmentally friendly pig that is being developed in Canada or cattle that are resistant to mad cow disease.

"For future applications out there the sky's the limit," David Edwards of the Biotechnology Industry Association said.

"If you can imagine it, scientists can try to do it."

AquaBounty submitted its first application for FDA approval in 1995, but the agency decided not until two years ago to consider applications for genetically engineered animals - a move seen as a breakthrough by the biotechnology industry.

Genetic engineering is already widely used for crops, but the US government until now has not considered allowing the consumption of modified animals.

Although the potential benefits - and profits - are huge, many individuals have qualms about manipulating the genetic code of other living creatures.

Genetically engineered - or GE - animals are not clones, which the FDA has already said are safe to eat.

Clones are copies of an animal. With GE animals, their DNA has been altered to produce a desirable characteristic.

In the case of the salmon, AquaBounty has added a growth hormone from a Chinook salmon that allows the fish to produce their growth hormone all year long.

The engineers were able to keep the hormone active by using another gene from an eel-like fish called an ocean pout that acts like an on switch for the hormone, according to the company.

Conventional salmon only produce the growth hormone some of the time.

In documents released ahead of the hearing, the FDA said there were no biologically relevant differences between the engineered salmon and conventional salmon, and there is a reasonable certainty of no harm from its consumption.

Critics have two main concerns: The safety of the food to humans and the salmon's effect on the environment.

Because the altered fish has never been eaten before, they say, it could include dangerous allergens, especially because seafood is highly allergenic.

They also worry that the fish will escape and intermingle with the wild salmon population, which is already endangered.

They would grow fast and consume more food to the detriment of the conventional wild salmon, the critics fear.

A wide range of environmental, food safety and consumer groups have argued that more public studies are needed and the current FDA process is inadequate because it allows the company to keep some proprietary information private.

Ron Stotish, the chief executive of AquaBounty, has countered that the company has more than addressed the concerns and his product has come under much more scrutiny than most food.

"This is perhaps the most studied fish in history," he said.

"Environmentally, this is a very sustainable technology."

The company has several safeguards in place to allay concerns.

All the fish would be bred female and sterile, though a small percentage may be able to breed.

They would be bred in confined pools where the potential for escape would be very low.

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1 comment:

  1. "Environmental" "sustainable" and "genetically engineered" go together say biotech company CEO. Wow, I'm sold. And the FDA okays it too, wow, even better. Nevermind that the FDA approved GMO crops as well as safe using biotech industry studies even though they are proven to not be safe at all and the fact that people becoming vegetarian would probably be far better for this weird "systems environmentalism" than engineering other beings' genetics for consumption. Why doesn't the FDA just pay these scientists ridiculous amounts of money to play chess all day in a wood paneled room with pleasant guards instead?