Nemo’s troublesome cousin

7 11 2011

Amy West

by Amy E. West

Would you like lemon on your transgenic fish?

In the interest of subduing the emotional reaction many have to genetically modified salmon when calling it ‘frankenfish’, I’ll refer to it by its technical title. But what is an appropriate name for a modified fish operating under the guise of two different fish genes— a deepwater eelpout and Chinook (king) salmon—but marketed as ‘farmed’ Atlantic salmon (Salmo salmar)? Transgenic (not to be confused with transsexual) is a perfect description to a scientist. Frankenfish, however, conjures images of a fish stitched together; some monster experiment gone horribly wrong. And if this franken-animal story does go awry, an aquatic ecosystem could be at stake.

Standing next to one of Alaska's Chinook Salmon- 2007, photo by and of Amy West

This situation is not about modifying food items like corn and tomatoes. They have no native or endemic counterparts that could be potentially decimated by interbreeding. This is about manipulating a living, breathing organism from the animal kingdom, which if approved by the FDA, will represent the first genetically modified animal for consumption. The chief difference here is that these salmon do have native relatives. With even just a slim chance of a transgenic fish reproducing, the potential exists to adversely affect a wild salmon population and its connected economy.

This is just one of several issues AquaBounty Technologies, the manufacturers of hybrid aquaculture fish, must address. Their goal is to produce a faster growing salmon in less time than typical farmed salmon, and bring a less expensive fish to the market. However, their sparse website misses a few key explanations.

1.) They state a Chinook gene (for faster growth) is incorporated, but make no mention of the other ingredient to the recipe; an eel pout gene (keeps the chinook gene turned on). Maybe the name alone isn’t appetizing, but the final engineered product is identified on the FDA’s website as:

Triploid hemizygous, all-female Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) bearing a single copy of the α-form of the opAFP-GHc2 rDNA construct at the α-locus in the EO-1α lineage.


Crossing salmon lines, Image: © Amy West

Creating female fish with three sets of x chromosomes (triploid) rather than two, ensures fish cannot produce gametes and, therefore, breed. Or does it? The molecular geneticist, Dr. Joe Cummins of the University of Western Ontario, has written about the need to extensively test the “leakiness of sterile triploids” to guarantee no gametes are ever produced. Molecular ecologist, Dr. Steve Palumbi of Stanford, also referred to the small percentage of triploid females that occasionally produce gametes.  If Aquabounty cited studies to prove that raising triploid fish always resulted in 100% sterility- then we could put the idea of crossbreeding to bed.

2.) Secondly, AquaBounty explains there is no threat posed by crossbreeding because the transgenic fish would be raised in closed systems that are operated inland. The company also advertizes their operations have reduced “environmental impact associated with air and ocean freight” that are normally linked to coastal enterprises.

This is confounding since these fish are to be bred in Canada, and their eggs flown to Panama to grow fish to market size. In addition, energy required to power these closed systems, process and ship the feed and market-size fish, leaves an awfully big carbon footprint. Aside from how much fish it takes to raise this new breed of salmon, where is their fish-feed coming from and what is it?

Tilapia in the US are raised in similar closed systems. But the environmental havoc suffered from escapees, in areas like Florida, has resulted in similar consequence worldwide. Would the Panama aquaculture systems be weather-tight?  What about earthquakes, fires, or tsunamis? The warm Panamanian waters aren’t conducive to salmon growth, but what are the chances of viable eggs slipping through the cracks in Canada?

“What level is the system so well-controlled and known that you can feel safe that nothing unusual will ever happen?” said Dr. Palumbi. “What are the consequences of escapes, and who is going to take responsibility?”

Though none of the fish will be raised within the US borders, other countries still face environmental risks. Dr. Jeffrey McCrary, an American fish biologist captured the aquaculture scenario best in a 2011 New York times article, “We are exporting the environmental damage caused by our appetites.”

The costs of introducing a foreign species unintentionally or intentionally has given humans plenty of environmental lessons to choose from: destructive algae let loose in the Mediterranean, zebra mussels attached to the Great Lakes, or bullfrogs taking over Australia.

Bulk salmon for sale at Costco, photo by Amoreeena Anker

FDA has been reviewing AquaBounty’s application for 15 years. Though legislators are currently voicing opposition based on potential risks, AquaBounty has yet to gain approval from Panama and Canada. Even if AquaBounty’s investors wait this out, their transgenic fish probably won’t be a menu option this year. More significant is the precedent set if the FDA approves GM salmon, which could grease the hinges to doors for other genetically engineered animals, like the Enviropig.

In the meantime, I have settled upon a new name for this genetically modified organism (GMO): Geemo.

Though I am sure Nemo, our beloved animated ocean fish, would steer clear of his man-made cousin.


Review the FDA materials on AquAdvantage salmon.

FDA accepts general correspondence from the public at any time. If you have comments on this topic, you are welcome to send them to the agency for its consideration at

'Geemo?' Image © Amy West




2 responses

8 11 2011

What is that angry looking fish in your photos?

8 11 2011

It’s a salmon- with all it’s brethren behind him ! Don’t you recognize that hooked jaw? They are the first things to greet me at MBARI and have always kind of spooked me

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