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[Duurzaamlijst] Altered Catfish Raise Issues

On 2 Jan 2001, at 11:15, Biotech Activists wrote:

Biotech Activists (biotech_activists@iatp.org)    Posted: 
By  blilliston@iatp.org	

Tuesday, January 2, 2001 

Gene-Altered Catfish Raise Environmental, Legal Issues 
Science: Modified plants and animals could wipe out other species,
experts fear. Oversight is 'full of holes.' 

By AARON ZITNER, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

AUBURN, Ala.--A few miles outside this college town, down a 
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 
swooping in. Filters stop the fish from slipping out with the waste
    Federal officials asked Dunham to protect the local environment
the catfish he grows here because nothing like them has ever cut 
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
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
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
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
Wildlife Service. 
     This view is far from universal. But concerns about the
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
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
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
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
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
gene-altered fish. 
     Fast-growing fish might enjoy a mating advantage in the wild,
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
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
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
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 that." 
     The confusion arises because the government, starting with the
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
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
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
in equally awkward ways. 
     Dunham had spent years using traditional breeding techniques to
the channel catfish, which is by far the most farmed fish in the
United States. 
     Then, in 1982, American scientists created one of the first
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
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
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
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
     "What it points to is that these fish have no environmental
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
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 a drug. 
     But some wildlife experts say that, although the FDA is
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
     "If there was a chance to look at the process and contribute to
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."  

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