'GloFish' won't be lighting up the state

By Edie Lau -- Bee Science Writer

Published Thursday, December 4, 2003

America's first genetically engineered critter to reach the marketplace, a neon-red zebra fish, is scheduled to debut in pet stores on Jan. 5 -- everywhere except California.

The state Fish and Game Commission on Wednesday turned down a Texas company wanting to sell genetically modified zebra fish as pets.

In voting 3-1 against the "GloFish," the panel rejected a recommendation by state Department of Fish and Game scientists to allow sales of the aquarium fish, and struck a new direction in evaluating genetically engineered organisms -- one based not on science alone, but also on ethics.

Commissioner Sam Schuchat said using genetic engineering to make pets is an abuse of power.

"For me, this is a question of values, not a question of science," Schuchat said. "I look at this and ask myself, 'So what's next? Pigs with wings? Pink horses?' "

The GloFish zebra fish was engineered with a fluorescence gene from red reef coral that imparts a bright red tint. Normal zebra fish, tropical freshwater fish measuring 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, are silver with black stripes.

The company poised to sell GloFish, Yorktown Technologies of Texas, also has a version endowed with a jellyfish gene that gives a green hue.

The fish were invented by Zhiyuan Gong, a researcher at National University of Singapore, with the aim of creating living gauges of water pollution. The idea was that the fish would respond to various pollutants by lighting up -- green fish would be lit by estrogenlike compounds, for example, and red fish would be lit by the presence of heavy metals.

Arguing that allowing such fish as pets would have socially redeeming value, Yorktown CEO Alan Blake said that Gong's research will benefit from fees the university earns from licensing its invention for the pet trade.

Blake wouldn't say how much of the $5-per-fish sales price will go to the research, however.

California is the only state where Yorktown needs permission to sell its fish. The regulation on transgenic ornamental fish is part of a broad Fish and Game Commission restriction adopted this year on genetically engineered aquatic animals.

The commission has granted 14 permits for possession of transgenic aquatic organisms, primarily for biomedical research.

Nationally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates transgenic animals meant for food or drugs, (which are not yet available commercially); ornamental fish fall into a gray area. An FDA official said Wednesday that the agency will announce within days whether it will oversee aquarium fish.

Similar glowing fish already are sold in parts of Asia.

About the time those fish hit the market earlier this year, Capitol Aquarium in Sacramento obtained a shipment of 50 genetically engineered zebra fish from a supplier in Singapore, store manager Shane Clayton said.

Before they were even labeled, a woman visiting the store "raised holy hell," Clayton said, saying the fish were illegal. Store management checked her claims and discovered she was right.

"So they got bagged up and sent back," Clayton said.

Tropical freshwater fish tend to be more drab than their saltwater counterparts, Clayton added, "so anything very colorful in freshwater is going to be a big seller."

That's what Yorktown is betting on. Blake said his company has an exclusive license to sell GloFish worldwide and will concentrate first on the United States, where he said 200 million aquarium fish are sold each year.

Of those, 25 million -- more than 12 percent -- are sold in California, he said. So he was naturally disappointed by the state commission's "no" vote.

"It's unfortunate the consumers of California will not be able to make their own decision," he said, adding that the company probably will reapply to the state in the future.

Fish and Game Department scientists recommended excusing GloFish from state restrictions based on unanimous agreement among 10 scientists consulted that the fish pose little or no risk to California's environment.

The two key scientific questions were: If the fish got out in the wild, would they survive and harm the ecosystem? And if someone or something were to eat them, would the fish prove toxic or allergenic?

Researchers, including several top experts in risk assessment of genetically engineered organisms, agreed that most waters in North America are too cold to support the tropical fish year-round.

One scientist submitted an analysis of the fluorescent proteins, concluding that they are neither toxic nor allergenic.

Though apparently largely satisfied with the scientific assessments, commissioners said they were concerned about bigger issues, including potentially setting a national precedent.

"The federal government doesn't even want to weigh in on this," said Commissioner Jim Kellogg. "The rest of the country's got its eyeballs on the state of California."

Kellogg and Commissioner Bob Hattoy, along with Schuchat, voted against exempting the GloFish; President Michael Flores voted in favor.

"I'm pretty satisfied that there's no risk," Flores said, adding to his colleagues, "You're basing (your vote) on ethics. That's a totally different approach, and I respect that."

About the Writer The Bee's Edie Lau can be reached at (916) 321-1098 or elau@sacbee.com.

Related graphic:

Neon fish [87k JPG]