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Gene-Altered Frankenfish Coming to Market

Los Angeles Times
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, Times Staff Writer

AUBURN, Ala.--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 water.

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 Wildlife
Service.

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 consumers.

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
gene-altered fish.

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 wild.

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
that."

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
States.

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
a drug.

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."

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