The Case of the Fluorescent Zebra Fish, GloFish

Schuyler S. Korban, Department of Natural Resources & Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801

Photo of ‘GloFish ‘: courtesy of

It was almost seven months ago when one of my graduate students sent me an e-mail of an article published on one of the news websites with the headline declaring that the State of California had banned the sale of the bioengineered ‘GloFish ‘ pet that went up for sale in all other states in the US beginning last January, 2004. Apparently, the Fish and Game Commission in California was not about to exempt this transgenic zebra fish from their overall ban on genetically engineered species inspite of environmental studies that demonstrated that this fish did not pose any environmental risks to California’s waterways, even if the fish, intended for the household aquarium, were to escape from the fish tank to these waterways. Apparently, the decision to ban GloFish was mainly based on ethical concerns. One of the commissioners deemed the sale of this genetically-engineered fish for pleasure as wrong. An interesting companion to this decision was the approval of this same legislative body of yet another license to pursue research into genetically modified fish. So, my question to ponder is this: How can we figure this diabolical decision??

But before we go there, let me share with you the story of the origin of this transgenic zebra fish. The wild-type zebra fish, Danio rerio, is native to the Ganges River in India, essentially a fresh water tropical fish only found in warm waters. This fish is normally striped black and grey, and it is commonly used as pets, and also used in laboratory experiments. Scientists at the National University of Singapore, under the leadership of Prof. Gong Zhiyuan, have introduced the gene for either the red reef coral fluorescent protein (RFP) from sea anemones and coral or the green fluorescent protein (GFP) from jellyfish into one- or two-cell embryos of the wild-type zebra fish in their attempts to develop transgenic zebra fish that can detect water pollution. Both RFP and GFP are expressed with the help of inducible promoters. Research continues on developing zebrafish that selectively fluoresce when exposed to contaminants such as estrogen or heavy metals. However, as fate or quick-thinking may have it, these red or green fluorescent fish have caught the interest of the ornamental fish market. Yorktown technologies took it upon themselves to move this fluorescent fish, now known as ‘GloFish ‘, into the ornamental fish market for use as household pets. In response to requests, the FDA, which holds jurisdiction over the commercial development of GM animals found no reason to regulate these pets. It was found that as tropical aquarium fish are not used for food purposes, they pose no threat to the food supply. Moreover, environmental studies have provided no evidence that these genetically engineered fish pose any more threat to the environment than wild-type zebra fish that have long been widely sold in the US. By contrast, the modified “super salmon” will be used as food and has been under review by the FDA for several years.

Back to my question in the first paragraph, it appears that pursuing genetic engineering research of fish is fine to the California legislatures as long as the end-product of this research does not lead to an ornamental fish that provides us; i.e., human beings, with a sense of pleasure! So, fish for food consumption is fine, while fish for esthetic purposes is not. This obviously brings up the question of decision-making based on some societal value system. Among the basic principles of ethics is the one of “doing no harm”. This, along with the principle of “animal rights”, may come to mind as possibly the reasons behind the decision to ban ‘GloFish ‘ by California legislatures. After all, opponents of genetic engineering have always used the abuse of the power of this technology (over life) as a major driving point in pushing their agenda of promoting fear of genetic engineering in the minds of the general public, and in turn influencing regulatory policies.

But, where is the harm to animals, and in this case zebra fish, when the transgenic fish appears to be similar to wild-type fish? Unless, there is documentation that ‘GloFish ‘ exhibits abnormal traits that are harmful to this species and to other species of fish, then the principle of “doing no harm” is clearly upheld. As to the principle of “animal rights”, it is often mentioned that the moral status of animals and decisions about whether it is ethical for humans to use them depends on several key internal attributes of animals, including the abilities to think, awareness of family members, feeling pain, and the state of being alive. We do recognize that some of the attributes that we believe humans have, which confer moral value on humans, may also be present in some animals. But this may apply to some primates or whales and dolphins as they appear to possess similar brain features and similar family behavior to humans, and so they possess a higher moral status than animals that do not exhibit these traits. But then again, we use various animals for testing of medicinal products and for various research purposes, including agricultural and human diseases and ailments. Using zebra fish for removing pollutants from the environment, as originally intended by the group of researchers, is no different. It so happens that wild-type zebra fish is commonly used for ornamental purposes. Realizing that the resultant genetically engineered fish has an ornamental value as well does not violate the rights of zebra fish. But of course, that is only my humble opinion!

In order to better understand why some societies are growing in membership and others are losing members and why some societies end each year in the black and others in the red, our SIVB President, David Altman, helped develop an External Analysis Form and assigned to several board members the task of interviewing members belonging to other Societies as to how these Societies function. In this issue of In Vitro Report, I give the results of the assessment of the 2 vertebrate-type Societies selected and in future Reports, Invertebrate and Plant related Societies.

The Society for Cryobiology started small and chooses to remain small. Membership has stayed at about 200 with about 100 attending each annual meeting. Meetings are profitable, in that they have a good idea as to attendance and can plan accordingly. The Society is international and tries to meet outside of the U.S. every other year. However, last year’s meeting was in Portugal and this year’s meeting is in Beijing, China. The Society hasn’t changed much since its inception in 1964, with the exception that it has broadened its scope to include freeze-drying or anything relating to the viable storage of cells, tissues, and organs. By remaining focused (not trying to be one of the big guys), they have remained in the black. Income comes from their annual meeting and their bimonthly journal (J. Cryobiology) and their quarterly, News Notes. They have no direct competition, but mini-symposia do show up at other meetings.

The European Soc. for Animal Cell Technology or ESACT is the Western European premier cell culture society. They consider their biggest rivals to be Cell Culture Engineering and the Japanese Association for Animal Cell Technology or JAACT. They have solved any rivalry problems by having their meetings every other year as does the Cell Culture Engineering and JAACT. Their biannual meeting is the off-year for the other 2 societies. The 3 societies work closely together, as each sponsors speakers for the other and each share some Scientific Board members and Program Committee members. They are presently looking into merging the societies to become more international (an opportunity for the SIVB?). Their other competitor is the Biotechnology division of the ACS. ESACT has about 2000 members with about 400 – 500 attending each meeting. The meetings are focused on specific topics and a monograph is published after each meeting. The monographs are a major source of income and helps keep them in the black. They do not publish a journal, but do publish a newsletter for their membership. The society has increased membership by offering non-European scientists full membership. Up until 2000 non-Europeans could only get Associate membership. They have also gone after younger members through an active Job Information Network.

Paul Price, SIVB Long Range Planning Committee Chair