Published on Monday, July 24, 2000 in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
Genetically-Modified 'Superfish' Worry Even Proponents
by Sharon Schmickle
Genetically engineered fish is one of many reasons that people are protesting genetic research in Minneapolis this week -- and a researcher in town for an international conference sympathizes with their concerns.
The fish research is aimed at use on farms where salmon, shrimp and other food fish could be confined to tanks or cages. But what if some of these "superfish" somehow got into the wild? Couldn't they disrupt the elaborate ecosystems of waterways?
It is easy to find scientists at a conference of the International Society for Animal Genetics in Minneapolis this week who share at least some of their critics' worries when it comes to altering the genetic makeup of fish.
"We have the same concerns," said Prof. Alan Teale, who directs research into the genes of Atlantic salmon, talapia and other fish as head of a program in aquatic molecular genetics at the University of Stirling in Scotland.
"Genetically modified fish getting into the environment is something that should not happen at the present time," he said Sunday during an interview at the conference at the Hyatt Regency hotel.
"If we can contain them, fine. But we have to make absolutely certain that we can."
Scientists at the University of Minnesota and elsewhere began manipulating genes in fish more than a decade ago. Laboratories in the United States, Japan, China and other nations are racing forward with the research that could help satisfy the burgeoning demand for fish in an increasingly health-conscious consuming public.
Teale is studying the genetic ability of fish to synthesize the essential fatty acids that are one of the important nutritional contributions that fish make to the human diet. He also is looking into questions of how small populations of salmon adapt to their environments.
Environmental groups worldwide are lobbying for restraints on the fish research and the use of its findings. Some have called for banning experiments with genetically engineered fish.
Teale argues that the research should proceed. The potential benefits -- such as improving the nutritional qualities of fish and easing the demand on already overfished natural stocks -- are important, he said.
One goal for the research is to find genetic mechanisms that could safeguard the environment -- for example, making the fish incapable of breeding with wild relatives.
But meanwhile, caution is needed, Teale stressed.
"At the present time, we would have to take all of the steps that we could to make sure that genetically modified salmon do not get into the environment," he said. "We don't know enough about them to say that there is no problem with these being out there."
The challenge is to control the experiments until more results are available. Then the general public should be presented with the full range of findings in order to decide whether to go ahead, he said.
But the point many protesters are making in Minneapolis this week is that the public doesn't get a real voice in such decisions. They argue that the results are so potentially lucrative for corporations and scientists that the findings move out of the science lab and into the marketplace before most people know what is happening.
"This is a problem for the public to address," Teale said. "It needs to make sure it does have a say. Commercial companies, like science, are a part of our society. It's everybody's responsibility. The protesters are right to be concerned that the public will not have a say in it. And it therefore is right to draw the public's attention to the issues.
"In my view, it isn't right for them to make the decisions on behalf of the public any more than it is right for geneticists to make the decisions on behalf of the public."
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