Two bay area companies genetically engineer the fish, but critics warn they may be a danger to nature.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published December 27, 2003
[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
The rather bland looking black-striped zebrafish takes on more color and pizzazz with a bit of genetic engineering. The fluorescence gene of the sea anemone is injected into zebrafish eggs, adding a splash of neon to aquariums. The flashy fish are popular. But is producing them ethical?
GIBSONTON - Segrest Farms vice president Jack Bramlett got curious when he heard about the zebrafish that glow deep pink and bright red.
Then Bramlett saw the tiny fish, which are genetically altered using the sea anemone's fluorescence gene, and he knew ornamental fish enthusiasts would like them.
But Bramlett never guessed aquarium keepers from as far away as Europe would clamor so passionately for the U.S.-patented GloFish.
He also didn't count on the nation's first genetically altered house pet creating such a stir among animal safety and agricultural watchdog groups.
Then again, Bramlett doesn't have much time to ponder the controversy.
Segrest Farms in Gibsonton and 5-D Tropical in Plant City are the only licensed U.S. producers and distributors of GloFish, and business is brisk.
"We weren't even supposed to release these until Jan. 5," Bramlett said. "But demand was so high once people heard about them. Now we can't keep them, they go so fast."
Just in time for the new year comes this glow-in-the-dark fish that is wowing tropical fish fans, even as it sparks debate on the ramifications of tinkering with the genes of animals we eat and play with.
The GloFish glows a rosy hue instead of flat black and silver. The cause: A gene that makes the sea anemone red is inserted into the zebra eggs before they hatch.
Researchers have used this genetic splicing on zebra danios, the aquatic equivalent of a white lab mouse, for more than a decade in studies of vision, cancer and vertebrate development.
But GloFish marks the first time the science has been used solely to please tropical fish collectors.
Critics say GloFish open the door to genetically altered animals that we will buy for companionship or consumption, and that their inevitable release into the general population will upset the ecosystem.
Proponents say the ornamental fish, native to India and Bangladesh, can't survive the nontropical waters of the United States long enough to establish an invasive colony.
They see the fish as a harmless tool to boost interest in tropical fish collecting, and to raise awareness about the role of fish in important research.
"You do anything to spark a little interest up here, it's a good thing," Bramlett said, tapping his temple. "Think about the educational factor of this for kids - learning about genetics and how these are reproduced."
GloFish is also a major moneymaker. The original zebra danio, which looks so plain next to its glowing cousin, retails for less than $1. A GloFish goes for about $5, and marketers promise green and yellow GloFish in the coming months.
The higher retail cost doesn't appear to bother buyers.
At Segrest's distribution center off Big Bend Road east of U.S. 41, workers bag and box GloFish all day to keep up with orders. They field phone calls and e-mails from Brandon to Switzerland.
Richard Crockett was a college student doing research at MIT when he first heard about the University of Singapore's attempts to create zebrafish that glow in the presence of toxins.
The Singapore researchers had already mastered the first step in detecting water pollution: creating fish that glow all the time.
Crockett's high school friend and fellow college student Alan Blake was a savvy entrepreneur who at age 19 became Pennsylvania Life Insurance Co.'s youngest manager. By his early 20s, Blake helped raise several million dollars to create an online service that provided electronic course materials for college students nationwide.
Blake and Crockett saw in the Singapore researchers' fluorescent fish their biggest opportunity yet. They believed families would jump at the chance to make their aquariums glow, and they formed Yorktown Technologies to prove it.
For more than two years, Crockett and Blake slogged through red tape and piles of paperwork to secure the patents and licenses required to sell the fish in the United States.
They promised the University of Singapore a percentage of GloFish profits (Blake would not disclose how much) to help in their research. Blake and Crockett collected support from 35 investors.
When they finally got the go-ahead to sell GloFish, they chose two southern Hillsborough fish farms to produce and distribute their product.
Hillsborough was the obvious choice, they said, considering its farms raise most of the freshwater tropical fish produced in the United States.
The area's warm weather and high water table are ideal for raising tropical fish, and Tampa International Airport provides a convenient way to transport them.
"Segrest and 5-D had the best capacity to serve the interest of distributing these fish," said Blake, 26, a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. "Both have been in the business for over 40 years, and they have wonderful reputations."
For the tropical fish industry, GloFish marks an opportunity to win new customers among children and even adults. Black and silver zebrafish might not compete with flashy video games and other high-tech entertainment, but glow-in-the-dark zebras can.
Craig Watson, director of the University of Florida's tropical aquaculture laboratory in Ruskin, said the fact that GloFish are genetically engineered could have soured consumers' demand for it.
"It did just the opposite," Watson said. "It's kind of like the movie Finding Nemo and the clownfish. We thought the movie was going to be negative, in that we thought people wouldn't want to keep this fish in captivity. But the kids saw that movie, and they wanted a clownfish."
California residents who want GloFish will have to buy across the border.
Federal law doesn't cover bio-engineered pets not meant for consumption, so it's up to each state to decide whether to permit the sale of GloFish.
California's Fish and Game Commission in December banned the sale of GloFish, making it the only state in which fish stores can't offer them.
Scientists testified that the GloFish were of little threat to the state's ecosystem, yet three of four commissioners denied Yorktown Technology's request to sell them.
GloFish opponents cheered California's stance. But they're railing against the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's decision not to regulate the fish on the grounds that it is not a product for consumption.
Allowing GloFish to be sold, critics say, opens the door for genetically altered, fast-growing salmon to be served in restaurants. And what's to stop scientists from tinkering with the genes of dogs and cats, so that they bark less or cease shedding?
"This is what people have been waiting for: "When is genetic engineering going to come into our homes as a fad?"' said Craig Culp, spokesman for the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C. "GloFish is the tip of the iceberg."
Nearly four years ago, artist Eduardo Kac inserted into a bunny embryo the gene that causes jellyfish to glow. The iridescent rabbit glows fluorescent green when an ultraviolet light is shone on her. Kac called it artistic expression.
A Canadian firm last year announced it had successfully spliced a spider gene into dairy goats, so their milk is laced with a spider thread that can be extracted to make bulletproof vests.
Genetics are at the forefront of research today, so transgenic animals aren't likely to go away.
The aquaculture division of the Florida Department of Agriculture recently formed a task force to address the issue.
Sherman Wilhelm, director of the aquaculture division, said the goal is to be better prepared when a a company like Yorktown comes to Florida in the future, wanting to sell genetically altered fish or other species.
The Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission can put a fish on a restricted sale list, Wilhelm said. But because the zebrafish wasn't on the list, there was no way to stop GloFish sales.
"And there was data showing it should be restricted," he said.
Wilhelm said Yorktown officials had lots of research and backing from scientists about the safety of GloFish, "but when somebody says again, "I want to sell this,' we want to have our own questions and research."
Blake, Yorktown's president, said he welcomes the task force but stands by his company's research.
"We've done an enormous amount of work on the legal licensing aspect of this, but even more on the science and environmental concerns," he said. "If every company that comes after us takes the same precaution we did, then we've set a good precedent."