Red fish, blue fish?

December 22, 2003

SCIENCE HAS taken on entertainment, and entertainment wins. A Texas firm will soon be offering up pet zebra fish genetically enhanced to glow bright red in the dark. Demand is predicted to be high, even at the sticker-shock price of $5 a head.

They should appeal to baby boomers who miss the joy of their Day-Glo posters and kids who have outgrown the glow-in-the-dark star stickers once plastered to their bedroom ceilings. Not to mention the hordes of aquarium lovers, always on the lookout for a unique addition to their aquatic landscapes.

They do not appeal to those who think introducing genetic variation into life, then setting it loose into the general ecosystem, constitutes biological pollution. Food safety and environmental groups are lobbying the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate such gene splicing, but neither agency has jurisdiction over pets.

Perhaps they should.

These fish aren't much danger to North American waters because they don't like cold or sea water. Even in the world's tropical climes, though, they aren't much of a threat: While they may stand out in the mating pool, that also makes them better targets for predators. There also is some evidence their progeny is sicklier.

But this first genetically engineered entertainer won't be the last - researchers already are working on allergen-free cats as well as more colors of zebra fish. As regulators ponder the worth of releasing salmon bred to offer more food and rice altered to grow faster into the greater, non-penned environment, they also should weigh the risks of introducing purely ornamental species into the world. If the sole benefit is profit, is it worth the risk?

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