A glowing controversy

February 04, 2004|By Jennifer Lehman | Jennifer Lehman,SUN STAFF

In the tanks that line the walls of Exotic Aquatics in Parkville's North Plaza Mall, there are plenty of aggressive, even scary fish swimming about: betta fish, or Siamese fighting fish, piranhas and stingrays.

But the scariest of the bunch, according to some people, is a little inch-long, red-striped fish that has shown up in pet stores and aquarium shops across the country in the past month: a tiny, genetically altered tropical fish being marketed as the GloFish.

Developed in Singapore for use in environmental research, the GloFish is the first genetically engineered pet to exude vibrant color under a black light. In other words, they glow.

The little fish has stirred up a lot of controversy, with objections and even legal action coming from individuals and organizations concerned that it is being sold without government regulation and could cause problems if bred with other fish or released into waterways.

Still, pet stores across the country have been stocking up on the altered species since its release Jan. 5. According to Exotic Aquatic manager Ray Kaczorowski, GloFish are a big seller at his store.

"Most people are very accepting of this type of stuff," he said. "It's something weird and different."

That is something everyone seems to agree on, even if they can't agree on whether the GloFish is a potential danger or just a gimmick.

Scientists created the GloFish by inserting fluorescent genes from jellyfish and sea anemones into the eggs of a silver and black zebra danio, a tropical fish from India. The fish was designed to help scientists determine when waterways were contaminated. If they glowed, it meant there were pollutants in the water.

But Austin, Texas-based Yorktown Technologies decided to breed and sell GloFish to the retail market beginning this year. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, which have denied permission for genetically engineered animals, such as salmon, to be sold as human food, decided not to regulate the GloFish.

In response, the International Center for Technology Assessment and the Center for Food Safety, advocacy groups that examine how production methods affect the food supply, filed suit last month to stop GloFish sales until the agencies act to regulate them. The suit is pending in federal court.

The suggested retail price of the GloFish is $5 per fish, but some stores have increased the price to $10. Yorktown has described sales so far as meeting expectations, despite the fact that California has banned GloFish sales, and some major chain stores, such as PetSmart, have so far refused to stock the fish.

Fish hobbyists themselves appear to be split over GloFish. While some object to its development, others say it's less hazardous than some fish created through normal breeding techniques. Still others think the GloFish is a dud.

Ghazanfar Ghori, a member of Potomac Valley Aquarium Society in Northern Virginia, referred to GloFish as a "Frankenstein fish," echoing the name given another fish that raised concerns a few years ago in Maryland: The snakehead fish that were dumped into a pond in Crofton.

"It's basically playing with nature," Ghori said.

David Snell, a former president of the Potomac club, said some members are concerned about the effects GloFish might have on other species if they are released into the wild.

"Genetic engineering has its place, [but] a lot more research needs to be done," Snell said. "I think it's strange. It's still too early to tell what could happen."

Beyond those concerns, though, Snell has a more basic objection. He's just not impressed with the GloFish, which, in normal light, displays a red streak. Only under black light does the GloFish glow.

"Looking at the photos vs. what I've seen in fish stores, it doesn't look like the photographs," Snell said.

Fish hobbyist Andrew Blumhagen, who currently heads the Potomac club, said alarmists need to remember that many fish have been genetically modified - albeit more slowly - through selected breeding.

"The reason this is causing controversy," he said, "is because technology moves faster than people's ability to deal with [the changes it brings]."

Phyllis Robinson, an associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, agrees, pointing to the longstanding practice of breeding animals such as dogs to fit a desired type. GloFish, she says, are just the next step.

"Scientists have been manipulating genetics for a long time, the only difference is the speed in which it happens," she said.

The appearance of the Glo- Fish on store shelves happens to coincide with a new exhibit at UMBC's Center for Art and Visual Culture titled "Paradise Now: Picturing the Genetic Revolution." The exhibit, which offers a look at artists' responses to the genetic revolution, will include a panel discussion led by Robinson on Feb. 12. The show will run through March 13.

Whatever ethical concerns the GloFish may raise, many hobbyists believe it will ultimately fail economically.

"I just think the industry is trying to make a buck," Snell said. "To sell these fish detracts from the beauty of natural fish."

Wire services contributed to this article.

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