Sterile Salmon on your Plate, and You Wouldn’t Know

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Biotechnology is going heads-on into unexplored waters. After bioluminescent plants, there’s another surprise in store for the common man. The US Food and Drug Administration, popular as FDA, recently approved a genetically engineered salmon that grows twice as fast as its natural counterparts on 25 per cent lesser food, and is sterile.

The brainchild of AquaBounty, the AquaAdvantage project involves engineering the growth hormone of the Pacific salon, Chinook. Now it’s common knowledge that the salmon stops growing in the colder months. But AquaAdvantage triggers the growth hormone and maintains the fish in specific environmental conditions, such as in in-land tanks, allowing them to keep growing until they are ready to turn up on the dinner plate.

Can you spot the difference?

If you are a health freak and prefer to stay away from genetically modified food, this salmon may trick you. The FDA claims to have found the engineered salmon safe to eat, thus allowing AquaBounty the leverage to not label the item as GM food.

A natural disaster waiting to happen?

AquaBountys patent US 9,198,404 describes a biotech invention that helps produce sterile progeny lacking germ cells. This means that the salmon is engineered such that it has three chromosomes per set, instead of the regular sets of two. Once modified into a triploid, the salmon cannot produce any reproductive cells.

Now, the engineering is still flawed like many sterility procedures, with a least 1% of the female fish continuing to reproduce. But that’s not the concern. The larger problem lies in the worry that if these fish ever escape into the sea and pass on their genes to the Atlantic salmon! This may upset the oceans’ delicate ecology and cause ecological disruption or even extinction of natural species. Genetically modified  fish, once escaped into the open ocean, are obviously much harder to control and can spread much faster than GM plants do on land.

Now, these genetically modified fish have a higher resistance and can utilize nutrients better. This means that they are powered up to outcompete their wild relatives and change predator–prey relationships. Their new avataar can encourage them to occupy new ecological niches where wild species would usually not survive.

AquaBounty claims to have multiple barriers in place to ensure the fish are within their limits in the culture farm. But that’s restricted to AquaBounty alone. The situation may spin out of control if these fish, especially the male lineage, passes on these genes to other salmon in natural waters across other geographies where rules may not be too stringent. What if the fish escape into waters following a natural calamity that breaks own the breeding farm?

If the modified transgene passes on to the wild population, it can result in conflicting effects on mating success rates and disturb viability and fitness in natural habitats. It may be a tad too late before we even realize the gravity of this situation in the face of such an event.

FDA’s approval for the first genetically engineered animal for consumption hasn’t gone down well with food and nutrition experts. Many supermarkets have promised not to stock this fish. But there are bound to be cracks in the wall that allow the GM salmons to slither in. India fought tooth and nail against BT Brinjal entering the market. Will we witness the same in the US?

Disclaimer: The featured image is only for representation purpose and does not represent any food cooked with GM Salmon.

(Featured image source: https://pxhere.com/en/photo/959642)

Dr. Nalini Mohan Koutha
Dr. Nalini Mohan Koutha

Dr. Nalini is a Pharmaceutical patent expert and has extensive experience as a technical and Intellectual Property Specialist in Generic Pharmaceutical manufacturing. His quest for analytical thinking extends to his deep interest in philately.


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