Frankenfish: Beyond the Myth

By Katie Keil

Two fish of a similar age: GE salmon in back, wild salmon in front. Credit: Paul Darrow from the New York Times

On April 26, 2018, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an application for a genetically engineered (GE) salmon facility in Indiana, paving the way for “frankenfish” to be commercially produced on US soil for the first time. These “frankenfish”, containing genetic information from three different species, were first demonstrated in 1989 but have had difficulty garnering consumer support.

AquaBounty —a small company and the mastermind behind the fish— has faced significant opposition from activist groups like Greenpeace, NGOs, and even members of Congress. Arguments range from concerns about interbreeding with wild salmon populations to the “unknown” risks of newly introduced genes. However, after more than twenty years of backlash and a rigorous scientific assessment, AquaBounty’s GE salmon was officially approved for consumption by the FDA in 2015.

Three years later, GE salmon has yet to make it onto our dinner plates due to lawsuits, labeling controversies, and other regulatory barriers. Canadians, however, have been consuming it since last year.

But what actually are these GE fish, and what does the science say about them? Is the opposition warranted?

Let’s start with the basics.

What are GE Organisms?

GEOs, or genetically engineered organisms, involve “the direct manipulation of an organism’s genome using biotechnology”. While cisgenic changes to DNA are possible through conventional breeding, transgenic changes require laboratories to transplant genes from a closely related species into an organism of interest. Genetic engineering began in the 1970s, and the first edible GEO, a variety of tomato, was commercially sold in 1992. According to a recent USDA report, you are likely already purchasing GEOs regularly since many US commodity crops are genetically engineered: in 2017, 85% of cotton acres and 89% of corn acres were planted with GE seeds.

What is a “frankenfish”?

AquaBounty’s “frankenfish” is a transgenic Atlantic salmon. The company inserts two bits of DNA into the genome of an Atlantic salmon egg: a Chinook salmon gene for a growth hormone, and genetic regulatory elements from an ocean pout, an eel-like fish. This genetic combination produces high concentrations of the growth hormone ordinarily produced by the Chinook, allowing – in this case – the transgenic Atlantic salmon to grow two times faster than it does naturally. According to the company, these GE salmon have the potential to reduce fishing pressure on wild stocks, consumer costs, and the industry’s carbon footprint.

What if they escape? They’ll decimate wild salmon populations!

Although an alarming premise, the company has taken considerable care to minimize these risks. In order to receive approval, AquaBounty had to ensure their GE salmon could not escape and outcompete or interbreed with wild salmon populations. The GE salmon are grown in two land-based locations with strict containment conditions such as jump fences, covered tanks, screened outflow tanks, and a closed septic system.

Even if they were to get through the “multiple and redundant” safety measures, the salmon would likely not be able to interbreed with wild salmon because only sterile female fish are grown at the facilities. Additionally, the facility locations were chosen to have inhospitable environmental conditions for salmon; escaped GE salmon of any life-stage would struggle to survive in the surrounding waters due to high water temperatures and inadequate habitat.

What does the science say?

The Freedom of Information Summary released by the FDA includes scientific findings specific to the AquaBounty salmon, concluding:

  • “No significant impact” to the environment,
  • GE salmon “is as safe as food from non-GE Atlantic salmon” and omega-3, omega-6 fatty acid levels are not materially different between fish,
  • GE salmon pose “no additional allergenic risk than control Atlantic salmon”, and
  • No unique animal feed-safety issues exist.

There is less data available on GE salmon than other GEOs since AquaBounty’s salmon is the first GE animal to receive FDA approval. GE crops, however, were first approved in 1994 and provide supplementary data on the impacts (or lack thereof) of GEOs on consumers and their environment. A comprehensive study reviewed 1783 scientific records from 2002 to 2012 and found no “significant hazards directly connected with the use of GE crops”. Specifically, there is evidence that GEOs pose:

  • little to no effect on their environment,
  • no special toxic or allergenic effects to humans, and
  • no threat of their DNA integrating into human cells.

Contrary to popular belief, genetically altered organisms rank among the most extensively studied subjects with many studies conducted by independent groups.

GEOs are not limited to products we consume — GE coral were created to buffer reefs from climate change, GE enzymes have the potential to recycle plastics “1000 times faster than nature”, and even GE algae can serve as renewable biofuel. Although controversial, GEOs may be necessary for the continued success of humans in the face of challenges such as climate change and increasing populations. However, GEOs can’t save us if they don’t make it off the drawing board or on the shelves — over 80 retailers, including Costco, Safeway, and Trader Joes, have already refused to sell GE salmon.

It’s important to note that there are economic, ethical, and cultural implications with GEOs, especially if they’re in the hands of a few powerful companies (e.g., Monsanto), that haven’t been discussed here but contribute to the debate. Caution is valid, and studies should continue to be funded and regulations implemented, but it is essential to listen to scientific data rather than basing opinions on biased websites, speculation, and fear mongering.

Despite its name, “frankenfish” might not be as scary as it sounds.