GloFish Hopes To Cash In With New GM Bettas

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GloFish is back in the spotlight – and hotseat – with their newest addition. Let me introduce you to GloFish Bettas, in case you two haven’t met yet. Like most of you, I have some issues with this. And the cold and – very – capitalist way that the company chooses to introduce these living creatures to the general buying public is one of them;

“Over the last several years, we have seen the popularity of GloFish grow, and we are thrilled to add to our livestock portfolio and introduce GloFish Bettas to the market, bringing the brand to an entirely new audience,”

Eric Kenney, VP of marketing and product development at Spectrum Brands Global Pet Care Division.

Uhm. Okay… not loving that vibe. But wait, he keeps going and, no, it doesn’t get better. He goes on to say,

“Aside from offering eye-catching color hues, with more to come down the road, GloFish Bettas are easy to care for and fascinating to watch, making them an exciting addition to our portfolio.”

With these new bettas – weird thing to say – they’re also launching 1.5 and 3-gallon tanks for them, so I do have to give them some credit for not trying to shove them into .5-gallon bowls – but I still suggest a 5-gallon minimum for bettas.

But before we get too far into why I’m seriously bothered by a press release, let’s chill for a second.

In order to understand if we should be pissed, signing petitions, and generally freaking out, we need to understand what these guys are – because most people don’t know. Moreover, most people don’t realize how far back their history goes – which is over 21 years now, if you were wondering.

So let’s start from square one.

Table of contents

What Are GloFish?

GloFish are genetically modified animals, they’re not dyed – although most people think they are. Scientists take genes from jellyfish and sea anemones and inject them into the already fertilized eggs. There aren’t any stats on the mortality rate of the developing embryos once this is done, or at what stage in their development this step is completed. But, by most laws, this has to be done within the first 24 – 48 hours based on the animal protection act. Otherwise you risk killing fish and, after the 24 – 48 hour point, it’s considered animal cruelty in the states. Each state, however, does have its own laws and that’s all assuming these modifications are being done in the states.

GloFish LLC (the company that produces GloFish the fish,) started this process with Zebra Danios back in 2001. In late 2003 they started releasing these genetically modified fish to the American public after five years of research. But GloFish only started in 2001, so what’s with the wonky timeline?

Before They Were GloFish

In 1999 – a full three years prior to GloFish’s own two years of research beginning – Dr. Zhiyuan Gong and his colleagues at the National University of Singapore (NSU) wanted to create a fish that could detect toxins in the water. The idea was to develop a fluorescence that could be flicked on and off by the presence of toxins. Of course, the first step in this process was getting them to display fluoresce at all.

Dr. Gong and his colleagues initially started injecting zebra danio eggs with green fluorescent protein (GFP) that was extracted from jellyfish. This produced the first green florescent fish. Next, they moved onto red fluorescent by using a sea coral, and orange-yellow fluorescent by adding a variant of the jellyfish gene.

Jumping back to somewhere around 2000 – 2001, Alan Blake and Richard Crockett from Yorktown Technologies, L.P., (the parent company of GloFish, LLC.) met with the scientists from NSU to strike a deal for the “technology.” While GloFish, LLC. says these fish underwent two years of research, most of it seems to be red tape related – particularly with the FDA.

Bans, Lawsuits & The FDA – Oh, My!

Since inserted genes can be considered a drug, the FDA has jurisdiction over all genetically modified animals. In October of 2003 the FDA stepped into the whole affair of selling GloFish – several weeks after they were already being sold to the public. They stepped out again rather quickly in December of 2003 with the following statement;

“Because tropical aquarium fish are not used for food purposes, they pose no threat to the food supply. There is no evidence that these genetically engineered zebra danio fish pose any more threat to the environment than their unmodified counterparts which have long been widely sold in the United States. In the absence of a clear risk to the public health, the FDA finds no reason to regulate these particular fish.”

FDA 2003

The FDA declined to release any information on why or how they had reached that decision, even though they were surprised by the release of the fish when the information hit their desk in October. When questioned, John C. Matheson, a member of the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, seemed rather nonchalant about this;

“We would have liked to have heard from [Alan Blake] sooner, but I’m not sure there are any legal obligations on him.”

John C. Matheson

After the FDA released their assessment, The Center Of Food & Safety – a non-government agent – tried to counter the FDA’s dismissal of regulation by issuing their own statement on the matter;

“It’s clear this sets a precedent for genetically engineered animals. It opens the dams to a whole host of nonfood genetically engineered organisms. That’s unacceptable to us and runs counter to things the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific review boards have said, particularly when it comes to mobile GM organisms like fish and insects.”

The Center Of Food & Safety

The Center Of Food & Safety filed a lawsuit in the US Federal Court in an effort to block the sale of GloFish. The lawsuit argued that the sale of transgenic fish is subject to federal regulation beyond the FDA’s charter, and as such should not be sold without more extensive approvals.

Ultimately, the Center Of Food & Safety’s lawsuit was dismissed March 30, 2005 as it was found to be without merit. As of now, GloFish are the only transgenic animal approved by the FDA for sale to the public and, of course, the FDA still regulates what can and can’t be sold as far as GM animals go.

On a related note, GloFish were also banned in California until 2015 based on a previous legislation that made the sale of genetically modified animals illegal in the state. They were asked to lift it several times, but declined to do so due to ethical and environmental concerns. This ban against GloFish was lifted in 2015, though they didn’t release any formal statement on their change of heart.

Do GloFish Pose A Genetic Threat?

In short: not that we know of.

Based off a study published in the Journal of Evolution, we have no reason to worry about genetically modified zebra danios wreaking havoc if they were set loose in the wild. William Muir, a professor of animal sciences at Purdue and the study’s senior author said;

“If the transgene will be whittled out of the population, then we don’t have to worry about the risks because it will disappear, and the long-term effects will be negligible.”

William Muir

In most species, it comes down to the female’s choice as to who she’ll mate with. Female zebrafish have two major drives that determine if she’ll mate with a given male. One being mate choice – as in she prefers one mate over another. The other factor being mate competition – whoever proves to be the stronger, faster, healthier, and overall better mate.

While female zebrafish prefer the colorful, flashy males over the regular colored males, the normal colored males usually won the female over and got to mate. This comes down to the natural males being more aggressive than their altered counterparts. This study showed that for zebrafish mate competition is more important than mate choice. And we know that this applies to most – though not all – fish species.

Interpreting The Results

In short: these modified zebrafish have a hard time passing on their genes – only 25% being successful when pitted against normal males. Once scientist had this data, they plugged it into a model to help predict how this might go in the wild overtime. The model uses six life traits in its predictions, including characteristics such as adult and juvenile likelihood of survival and male mating success.

When run, the model predicted the modified genes would be weeded out over time, which is what they saw in the lab. This model – as a side note – is also being used by the FDA to assess the environmental risk of new transgenic organism. This study, however, was only done for the zebrafish. The theory goes that it will likely apply to most of the other species as well, however we don’t know.

Do GloFish Pose A Threat To The Environment?

Okay, so not a huge genetic threat. But the environment, right?

According to the FDA and Muir, the genetically modified zebrafish pose the same threat to the environment as normal zebrafish if released. Though, to be honest, I am a little skeptical about this myself.

I Don’t Like GloFish

And the idea of GloFish bettas severely perturbs me. There. I said it. And I don’t like the company that produces them, since it’s very transparent how cash-grabby they are about living things. Which is already too common in the hobby, we certainly don’t need them adding to it.

While I get why I hate the idea of them launching a new “portfolio item,” I was left wondering why GloFish bother me so much. And I think, like many people, I’m concerned about what it might mean, and I’m worried about what might happen. Because, if I’m honest, this low-key feels like The Island of Dr. Moreau.

A close up of an animal Description automatically generated

And it makes me worried about the hobby. Seeing these fish detracts from their natural beauty, and it makes me wonder what future hobbyists will do and think is okay. When we’re talking about a hobby that’s already on the decline and the quickest way we’re gaining future hobbyists is with these genetically modified fish… that’s a bit of a concern.

With that said, I get it. We can’t go around life based off what might happen or what could happen, in a perpetual state of possible catastrophe prevention. But I still don’t like the idea, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change.

What do you think of these new fish? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Further Reading & Resources

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