A few miles outside this college town, down a gravel road that runs
through rolling woodlands, Rex Dunham has turned a set of muddy ponds
into a high-security prison for fish.
Electric wire keeps the raccoons at bay. Netting blocks the herons
from swooping in. Filters stop the fish from slipping out with the waste
Federal officials asked Dunham to protect the local environment from
the catfish he grows here because nothing like them has ever cut the
waters of the Earth. These catfish have been laced with DNA from salmon,
carp and zebrafish, which makes them grow as much as 60% faster than
normal. That could help farmers feed more people for less money and boost
efforts to end world hunger.
But there also is a chance that fast-growing fish might touch off an
environmental disaster, according to scientists who have studied the
matter. Their greatest fear is that Dunham's catfish will escape and wipe
out other fish species, as well as the plants and animals that depend on
those fish to survive.
And now, some scientists and government officials are raising a second
and equally troubling concern: that the federal government has limited
legal authority to protect the environment from Dunham's catfish--or from
some of the dozens of other genetically modified plants and animals now
being readied for market.
"Here we are on the brink of remaking life on Earth through genetic
engineering, and we do not have a thorough process for reviewing the
environmental impacts," said William Brown, science advisor to Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbitt. "The system is full of holes."
"My sense is that the current system is not going to be OK and that
there are going to have to be changes--or a whole new system put in,"
said Bill Knapp, a senior fisheries official with the U.S. Fish and
This view is far from universal. But concerns about the government's
legal authority are significant enough that President Clinton ordered
federal agencies in May to review the relevant laws and probe for holes.
The review is due to be completed early this month.
Americans already eat modified corn, potatoes and other crops. Soon to
come are the first such animals: disease-resistant shrimp, meatier
chickens and fast-growing salmon. Thanks to mouse DNA, a new pig produces
a less harmful manure. New crops include a rice, mixed with daffodil DNA,
that includes more nutrients.
Dunham, an Auburn University researcher, already has started seeking
federal approvals to sell his fish. And he could be among the first to
win approvals to sell a genetically modified animal to American
Although there has been great attention paid to whether these foods
are safe to eat, Brown and others say the potential risk to the
environment could be an even bigger concern. And, the government is
stretching outdated laws to cover the gene revolution, they say, as if
using 19th century railroad laws to regulate airlines.
Some warn that genetically modified plants and animals could move into
the wild and breed disruptive traits into local species, similar to the
way African "killer bees" escaped a Brazilian research facility in 1957
and spread their aggressive traits. Others fear an opposite scenario:
that instead of thriving, the modified plant or animal could interbreed
with its natural cousins in ways that would destroy the species entirely.
Scientists call this the "Trojan gene" effect, because the modified
organism is undermined by the new genes that it takes in. William M.
Muir, a geneticist at Purdue University, has used a mix of laboratory
observation and computer modeling to show that it could happen with
Fast-growing fish might enjoy a mating advantage in the wild, Muir
says, yet produce young that are ill-equipped to survive. "This could
locally take a population to extinction," he said.
And yet, federal officials say that no law requires people who alter
fish genes to keep the fish isolated and away from local waters. The
Agriculture Department was able to ask Dunham to build his "fish prison"
only because his research is backed by federal funds.
Moreover, officials said, it is unclear whether any federal law
penalizes a person who releases genetically modified animals into the
More troubling to some critics is that certain species may escape
federal regulation entirely.
For example, at least one company is altering the genes in creeping
bentgrass, a common golf course turf, so that it is more resistant to
weed killers. That would allow lawn managers to use herbicides without
harming the turf. But it could also make the grass, which already invades
lawns and gardens, harder for homeowners to control.
Officials are divided over whether the government has the authority to
regulate genetic changes to the grass. The Agriculture Department claims
authority over all "plant pests" and potential pests, and it is using
that authority to supervise the company working on creeping bentgrass
genes. But Brown and others disagree, saying that the legal definition of
plant pests clearly excludes the grass. The department has overstepped
its legal authority, Brown says.
Similarly, several teams are working to modify algae as a food and
laboratory substance, said Anne Kapuscinski, a fish geneticist at the
University of Minnesota. Algae is not a plant pest, she said, "so who is
going to have authority over it? There's been no public statement on
The confusion arises because the government, starting with the Reagan
administration, decided that decades-old food and agriculture laws could
be stretched to cover genetically altered species.
For example, some corn and potato varieties already on the market have
been genetically modified to produce their own insecticide. Because the
Environmental Protection Agency has jurisdiction over insecticides, it
takes a lead role in regulating these crops.
For other crops, the Agriculture Department claims a leading role
because scientists commonly use bacteria and viruses to modify the crop
genes. The agency already regulates those bacteria and viruses as plant
pests, and it claims jurisdiction over the crops as well.
Jane Rissler, senior staff scientist with the Union of Concerned
Scientists, called this rationale "an awkward stretch of the laws" that
does not cast a broad net over all gene-altered plants. The mere fact
that genes have been engineered should be enough to bring a plant or
animal under federal scrutiny, she said.
Besides, scientists now are modifying genes in ways that do not rely
on bacteria or viruses but that should not release them from federal
regulation, Rissler said.
In regulating fish, some people believe the laws are being stretched
in equally awkward ways.
Dunham had spent years using traditional breeding techniques to modify
the channel catfish, which is by far the most farmed fish in the United
Then, in 1982, American scientists created one of the first transgenic
animals--mice that grew to twice their normal size, thanks to rat and
human genes that produce growth hormone. The mouse experiment prompted
other scientists to start manipulating traits in a range of species. Many
researchers saw the new technology as a way to help farmers produce more
food with less resources.
"If we can grow more fish in less space, that decreases pressure on
the environment," Dunham said. "And we will never be able to catch more
fish than we do now from the natural environment. Yet world demand for
fish is increasing."
Normally, catfish stop growing in the winter, when the genes that
produce growth hormone all but shut down. Dunham and his team began
producing catfish that had an extra copy of a growth hormone gene. They
also added a piece of DNA from salmon, carp or other species that acts
like a year-round "on" switch for the gene.
The result: Dunham's catfish grow to their market size of about 2
pounds within 12 to 18 months, rather than the normal 18 to 24 months.
Dunham and his research partner, Zhanjiang "John" Liu, hope to turn
the fish into a commercial product. Several fish geneticists believe the
Auburn catfish could be the second genetically modified animal to reach
American consumers. A/F Protein Inc., a Massachusetts firm, is expected
to be first. It is seeking approval for a fast-growing salmon that it is
developing in indoor tanks in Canada.
Dunham and Liu also have begun researching how their fish would behave
in the wild. So far, they say, they have found no cause for concern.
One published study found that the fish have slightly less ability to
avoid predators than do native catfish. Two other studies, not yet
published, determined that the Auburn catfish do not have a competitive
edge over native fish for food and have equal reproductive ability.
"What it points to is that these fish have no environmental advantage,
or maybe are a little handicapped in the natural environment," Dunham
said. "But the principal point is that we need more research to determine
what the environmental risk is."
If Dunham and Liu commercialize the catfish, the lead regulator would
be the Food and Drug Administration--but not because the fish would be a
food. Instead, the agency considers the fish's extra growth hormone to be
But some wildlife experts say that, although the FDA is well-equipped
to assess drugs, it is the wrong agency to rule on whether genetically
modified fish pose a risk to the environment. "People understand
intuitively that this is asking a lot of the FDA, asking it to become a
wildlife regulatory agency," Brown said.
FDA officials say they are routinely called on to consider
environmental effects. John Matheson, senior review scientist for
veterinary medicine, noted that, when the agency recently reviewed a
growth hormone for cows, it studied potential changes in land-use
patterns, soil erosion and methane levels.
Critics of the system raise another complaint about the FDA's role: It
operates under a federal law that aggressively protects company trade
secrets, and an often anxious public cannot learn what genetically
modified plants and animals are on the road to winning federal approvals.
"If there was a chance to look at the process and contribute to the
decision-making, it would be a lot easier to win over the trust of the
public," Kapuscinski said. "You'd still have some criticism, but you'd
have more trust."
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times