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    Do Genetically Modified Fish Cross the Line?

    We love vibrant colors, and unique patterns. This innate attraction to color, along with a growing interest in sustainability has launched an entire sub-industry of designer fish. We have our Platinum Percs to show for it. The development of “designer fish” (that is to selectively breed fish to develop or enhance specific traits) is frowned […]

    We love vibrant colors, and unique patterns. This innate attraction to color, along with a growing interest in sustainability has launched an entire sub-industry of designer fish. We have our Platinum Percs to show for it.

    The development of “designer fish” (that is to selectively breed fish to develop or enhance specific traits) is frowned upon by some, but clearly cherished by others. Where is the line in the sand? When have we gone too far? For some of our readers, the neon fish below are that line.

    glofish zebra danio

    GloFish via LiveAquaria

    GloFish is a ‘brand’ of genetically modified freshwater Zebrafish (Danio rerio). Scientists inject a fluorescent protein gene to the embryo before the fish hatches. The protein gene then integrates in the fish’s own DNA creating a genetically modified fish. From that point on the neon color is as much a part of the fish as the shape of their fins; it will stay with them the rest of their life and can be passed down to their kin. While commercially these neon creatures are limited to freshwater species, Danios are not the only ones. Barbs, Guppies and even Cichlids are receiving the same treatment.

    Considering how unnatural our hobby is, these fish raise some difficult ethical questions. Would you buy a genetically modified fish for your personal aquarium?

    h/t Dave L


    1. jalexs
      December 8, 2010 at 2:06 PM | Permalink

      I fail to see how genetic engineering is so fundamentally different from everything else we do in agriculture/aquaculture and in the pet-fish hobby in general. We’re already manufacturing a completely artificial environment (those who believe we can approach the hobby in a more “natural” way are kidding themselves). Selective breeding has been done for millennia, and it has shaped our world in ways we could have never predicted. We know far more now about the effects of genetically engineered species than we ever knew of the effects of selectively bred species. If anything, genetic engineering of ornamental fish species is a way to encourage the purchase of captive breeds over wild-caught fish.

      I know people will disagree with the above statement. However, just about any counterargument could equally suffice as an argument against the ornamental fish trade itself.

    2. Arcuatus25
      December 8, 2010 at 2:06 PM | Permalink


    3. Max
      December 8, 2010 at 2:15 PM | Permalink

      I think there is a fundamental difference in that direct genetic manipulation allows for much larger and quicker changes, which are intrinsically more difficult to ensure are safe. I agree with you though we’re doing essentially the same thing with breeding, and I have much more of a problem with some fancy goldfish than I do with glofish (which I kind of want!).

    4. gillt
      December 8, 2010 at 7:18 PM | Permalink

      A little history: glofish were originally used as bio-markers. Dump these transgenic fish in a waterway and if they turn colors the water is polluted. It’s a nifty real-time test–the genetics behind it is also interesting. The scientist who came up with this designer model partnered with an ornamental fish distributor and made these available to the public.

      Scientists have been using these guys to study developmental biology, evolution, tumorigenesis, neuro-degenerative disorders, and a host of other things in the lab for years. They’re easier to manipulate than mice and being vertebrates, closer to humans than Drosophila.

      As a geneticist, I’ve inserted monkey, mouse, jellyfish, fugu and yes HUMAN! genes into zebrafish in the pursuit of cancer research and the reason I can is because of our shared genetic background: DNA is universal. Imagine the possibilities! Anyway, a purified version of a jellyfish gene coding for a fluorescing protein in a zebrafish does not suddenly make it an abomination to nature. Perhaps what makes us squeamish is our preconceived notions of “natural” and “right” and the so-called “moral order of things” being challenged in our own hobby. And that’s a good thing.

    5. mk
      December 8, 2010 at 8:07 PM | Permalink

      Definitely does not cross the line LOL. We do much worse things to research animals. Much, much worse.

    6. gillt
      December 8, 2010 at 9:01 PM | Permalink

      haha, if you’d like to volunteer yourself as a human guinea pig by all means. Take it from me, the more invasive the procedure the more they pay.

    7. monkyspunk
      December 9, 2010 at 1:01 AM | Permalink

      I don’t see this as being that different from the kinds of selective and/or cross breeding efforts that have been taking place throughout human history. Sure, it’s a bit more intrusive, but it’s just a progression of what’s been happening.

    8. Albert
      December 9, 2010 at 1:05 AM | Permalink

      I suppose there would be a strong case against this sort of genetic manipulation if you’re religious or assume that there will be an irresponsible transfer of these modified animals into the wild.

      Personally, I’ve no issues seeing these in stores or people’s tanks.

    9. Paul
      December 9, 2010 at 3:49 AM | Permalink

      I think you misunderstand why these fish were originally made. They were made for research purposes and for lab use. The real question is not if they should be made, Science has been doing this with mice, plants, cells, etc for decades, its whether they should be sold to the public. Very different question.

    10. JVK
      December 9, 2010 at 6:19 AM | Permalink

      I think breeding animals so they have certain cosmetic traits that also cause the species discomfort is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. Breeding of a fish so that it lacks a tailfin, has a funny looking face that makes it hard for it to eat, bulging air bubbles under its eyes, or a deformed swim-bladder for a more ‘stubby’ look is something that has gone on for a long time. Fancy Goldfish, Guppies, Longfin strains… etc… sometimes the mutation would only be a disadvantage for a wild fish (longfin variants for isntance), but often times the well-being of the fish is diminished. Many fancy goldfish varieties cross this line IMO. Many dog breeds do as well, in particular bulldogs and pugs. Bulldogs with the most desirable traits cant even deliver their own pups since the heads are too large for the female’s hips. Pugs and bulldogs have health issues as a result of their structure as well. Many fancy goldfish breeds cant even breed without a human ‘milking’ them.
      I would say that AS LONG AS THE GENETIC (OR OTHER) MODIFICATION DOESN’T CAUSE DISCOMFORT TO THE ORGANISM, ITS ETHICAL. In that respect, the method isn’t so much as important as the end result. Many humans desire such ‘modification’ with tattoos and piercings among other ‘enhancements’ that leave them with an appearance that isnt natural. It is very likely that gene therapy and other similar medical treatments will be available in the next few decades to treat human conditions of all sorts, or to ‘enhance’ ourselves as we see fit.

      Something I do take issue with however is how the companies that produce these fish can have patents on them. I remember a case where a guy bred some of those danios and was threatened by the company that he couldn’t even give them away for free or risk a lawsuit. The fry had to be ‘disposed of”. Now, organisms will breed if kept in suitable conditions, and I take issue with the precident that such a natural act as reproduction means killing babies of any species if the species is ‘owned’ by a company. That doesn’t seem ethical to me at all. Fry are one thing, but what about when and if such a precident is used on modified cats, dogs, or even humans? I think the ethical argument is a clear one then. Perhaps a more humane solution would be that the company that ‘owns’ the species would be entitled to a royalty. Of course, this would result in many people just giving away the fish for free, saturating the market, etc… but maybe what the people want is what the people should get in this case. I think it is wrong that a company can ‘own’ a genetic code. Perhaps the process of getting there can be patented, but if someone else were to arrive at the same result via a different method, it should be legitimate as well.

    11. jake
      December 9, 2010 at 6:44 PM | Permalink

      I think those are cool. The fact that the coloration is introduced in the embryonic stage is amazing. If the fish are otherwise normal and healthy I find nothing wrong with it. With coloration like that, I can’t imagine they last long in nature due to instant predation by birds and other fish. If it’s been proven that they pose no threat to animals that may eat these modified fish if they were released into the the wild, I see no problem with making them available to the public.

    12. Handerson
      December 9, 2010 at 11:52 PM | Permalink

      I think this hits on some of the real issues. Doing this type of work in a lab is one thing but selling them commercially is a different beast.

      And what about the risk of reintroduction into the wild. If you would have said Lionfish would be dominating the reefs in FL 30 years ago… people would think youre crazy. Now they are here and will forever change that environment and alter the path of evolution. What if a genetically modified fish or animal does the same? How can you possibly judge that risk?

    13. December 12, 2010 at 7:23 AM | Permalink

      I dont know that those colors would result in ‘instant predation’.

      Think of all the fish that are those colors or similar already. Even in freshwater streams and creeks, you have neon tetras, cardinal tetras, white clouds, black neon tetras, glowlight tetras, and all the other neon-ish colored fish.
      … wait, so if I bred a yellow and blue one together, would I get a green one? LIkewise, could I use red and blue to make purple… that would be wicked…lol.

    14. milkman
      December 13, 2010 at 1:21 AM | Permalink

      How is this different than crossing different breeds of dogs to create a new breed? I prefer naturally occurring species myself, but I don’t think it’s my place to tell someone else what they should accept or reject.

    15. January 20, 2011 at 3:12 AM | Permalink

      i dnt think Genetically Modified Fish Cross the Line i like the look of them wish i new where to gets some but cant find any in new zealand bcoz MAF biosecurity new zealand had this to say on 19 july 2007 MAF Biosecurity New Zealand (MAFBNZ) yesterday entered four Christchurch premises in response to information that people at those addresses were breeding and/or selling genetically modified aquarium fish.

      The fish, genetically modified Zebra danio (Danio rerio), were brought to MAFBNZ’s attention by concerned members of the public who had seen them for sale online.

      MAFBNZ Incursion Manager David Yard says the operation involved seizing and humanely euthanasing approximately 300 tropical aquarium fish that genetic testing confirmed had been genetically modified with a red fluorescent protein to make them a bright red/pink colour.

      Mr Yard says the fish, including any that may have been on-sold, pose an extremely low risk in biosecurity terms as they are unlikely to enter the food chain or have any environmental impacts. “They are tropical so are unlikely to be able to survive outside a temperature-controlled tank.

      “The presence of these fish in New Zealand has not, however, been authorised and they are illegal new organisms in breach of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act,” he says.

      “Our work now is focused on tracing any fish that have been sold. To this end, we’d like to encourage tropical fish enthusiasts who have bright red/pink coloured danios in their possession, or knows someone who has these fish, to contact MAFBNZ on the freephone 0800 80 99 66. Arrangements will be made for the fish to be collected and put down.”

      While the fish pose no environmental risk, Mr Yard says it is important they are dealt with by MAFBNZ and humanely destroyed. “At the very least, fish should be disposed of into land-based bins and not in a manner where they could get into waterways.”

      It’s thought the fish are either part of, or bred from, a consignment of red danio fish that were imported from Singapore earlier this year and cleared by the then MAF Quarantine Service.

      “The fish in question were cleared for entry at the time, due to an incorrect declaration by the importer who believed they were dyed red, rather than genetically modified. The importer’s belief they had been dyed was supported when the fish were examined under UV light and did not fluoresce or glow as is typical with this type of genetic modification.”

      David Yard says it’s important that people keeping tropical fish are aware that the importation, possession or sale of genetically modified organisms is illegal in New Zealand. back to me now i wish i know about these fish years ago i think it would be cool looking at glowing fish in your tank it would be a bit like a nightclub but not music

    16. Erinjvanlew
      June 1, 2011 at 1:19 AM | Permalink

      Genetic modification is radically different from natural selective breeding. Genetic modification alters the DNA by way of chemicals and proteins from other animals and even humans. Yes, human DNA into animals and vegetables. The animals also get patented. That’s ethically wrong.

    17. Amelia Payne
      February 3, 2013 at 8:29 PM | Permalink

       the glo fish pass there genneticks on, sevral years ago the first glo fish were genneticley altered all the subquent ones are decedints of thouse first fish nobody is hurting the fish to inject new genes into every fish

    18. Whales
      June 5, 2014 at 11:36 PM | Permalink

      I’m buying me a bunch today got a 55 gallon to fill up hip hip

    19. ShelbyN
      July 24, 2015 at 8:02 PM | Permalink

      I’ve bought them before but never known how they were made so colorful, and as long as then modified gene isn’t harming the way the fish grow I don’t see a problem with it.

    20. Allan Evers
      December 22, 2015 at 5:11 AM | Permalink

      Yes I will bay them for my tank. Lots of people is gladly eating genetically modified corn and cereals and they even grow freely on farmers’ fields.

      Appeared this hysteria about aquarium fish are somewhat exaggerated

    21. Kathryn
      October 16, 2016 at 2:59 AM | Permalink

      They don’t feel any pain as they are passing these fluorescent proteins on to their offspring through breeding. The original glow fish were genetically modified in their embryonic stage so there was definitely not measurable pain or discomfort put on the fish. Zebra fish in particular have been used for research for decades and to do research scientists have to justify their research to an ethics committee if they are using animals. It is actually a long painstaking process requiring a lot of paperwork. I think injecting an embryo is more ethical that exposing the fish to chemicals. Keep in mind these “research fish” are being killed and dissected so their genes can be tracked as that is the original purpose of GFP (green fluorescent protein). Its very important in research pertaining to cancer and cell mechanisms.
      I’m an animal lover but I’m also a scientist and there is a point where you have to think these animals are bred for this purpose and what good is coming of this. Zebra fish, mice, rats etc are bred specifically for research. Yes some of the things done to them sound horrific but the animals are humanely euthanized if they deteriorate to much so they don’t suffer. Many smaller animals are euthanized and dissected afterwards anyway. Like what do you think the millions or billions of mice are going to do if they aren’t being used for research? They would be eaten by predators, carry diseases, infests the cities or not be born at all. Same with fish, do you know how many fish die in pet stores DAILY? LOTS! Who is screaming “close the pet stores! Close the fish trade!” practically no one. Hell in nature millions of fish die or are eaten anyway. Storms kill millions of fish, millions more are eaten by predators. Lets not forget the delicious fish that come to our table.. over fishing by humans kills thousands of marine mammals, whales, sharks, dolphins all get caught in fishing nets and are killed. I could go on and on but my point is these fish are specifically bred by people for the purpose of having a pet that can be enjoyed. Most people with fish as pets have suitable tanks and feed them and these fish can live 5-8 years which is longer than they would live in the wild. They are essentially a “feeder fish” in the wild and that is why they are so easy to breed. I guess I’m just saying don’t anthropomorphize the fish, they don’t feel pain the same way humans do, they don’t need a quality of life that meets the standards humans place on them. You can’t save all the fish and if you could…. would you really want to? Would you want to have a bunch of fish tanks with “rescue glofish”? Of coarse not, that would be silly and impractical.
      As far as I know you cannot “own” a species you can discover it and name it but there is a whole other arena of laws pertaining to genetically modified plants, food and animals. I believe the “process” of how you made the species is what is patented not the species itself so essentially you could buy glofish, they could breed and you could legitimately sell the babies with no repercussions. I also believe the only organisms that can be patented are single celled organisms that are modified for a specific purpose such as the “oil eating bacteria”. They were discovered in the ocean and then cultured in a lab and the cultured bacteria are patented because they are “processed” or manufactured in a specific way.

    22. Kathryn
      October 16, 2016 at 3:12 AM | Permalink

      Genetic modication is actually radically different than genetic labeling and genetic activation. This fish already had “glo” proteins in their DNA they were just injecting “chemicals”, which are naturally occurring by the way, to activate genes that are already present. Genetic labeling is injecting a protein (also naturally occurring so not a “chemical”) into the embryo and it binds to amino acids in the DNA causing the fluorescent color once the embryos mature effectively altering the DNA sequence all together so they pass the activated proteins onto their offspring when they breed.
      I think you have a misunderstanding of how DNA works, all DNA is essentially made up of 4 nucleotides which are not special to humans. They exist in all plants, animals, and bacteria, It is the arrangement of these nucleotides that makes each organism different. So injecting “human” DNA is essentially impossible, you can insert a sequence of DNA that is present in humans, but you could also make that sequence in a lab without any human DNA to work with.
      Secondly animals cannot be patented, the process of genetically modifying an animal can be patented but no living animal can be patented. The only organisms that can be patented are bacteria and in that instance they are cultured so essentially it is still the process of making the culture that is patented.
      On a side not I do agree genetic modification is different than selective breeding but there are actually lots of fish that “glow” naturally that are no genetically modified. Genetic modification is just a faster way to get to a end result of a species instead of selectively breeding for many many many generations with no guarantee of reaching you end goal.

    23. Kathryn
      October 16, 2016 at 3:20 AM | Permalink

      Depending where you live these fish would die of exposure before any predation happened. They are a tropical fish so if you live in a not tropical area chances are they do not pose a risk. Some places like Hawaii for example the fish might actually survive and reproduce and that could cause a huge biosecurity issue and effect the native species in the area. Just because they glow also doesn’t mean that they would be preyed upon right away, especially if its an unnatural coloration they might actually be less preyed upon because any predators would be unfamiliar with that coloration. Also bright colors are usually warnings other animals that they are poisonous or taste bad so that is yet another reason they might actually be less preyed upon than regular fish.
      Additionally many fish in the ocean already do naturally glow, not to mention that GFP (green fluorescent protein) is harvested from jellyfish and synthetically made in a laboratory.

    2 Trackbacks

    1. December 9, 2010 at 8:30 AM

      […] Do Genetically Modified Fish Cross the Line? __________________ nikkibabee – 03:05 PM : die nikkibabee – 12:19 PM i hate when someone says "we'll see" […]

    2. […] on the issues have a look at: Scientists design glowing fish to warn of toxins or troubles Ethics of GloFish, Genetically Modified Neon Fish TFH Digital is now a WCAS member benefit Tropical Fish Hobbyist Magazine (www.tfhmagazine.com) is […]

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