A fluorescent tropical fish called the GloFish that is now being sold across the country is one small step for genetic science, and one giant leap for household pets. Fish lovers at UCSB are going to be left in the dark, however, as these aquatic oddities are currently outlawed in California.

GloFish are a breed of genetically modified zebrafish, a popular tropical fish that can be found in many aquariums, which fluoresce bright red when they are exposed to light. In 1999, Dr. Zhiyuan Gong at the National University of Singapore (NUS) added a fluorescent gene taken from a certain type of jellyfish to zebrafish eggs, giving the fish their unique Day-Glo effect.

Yorktown Technologies, LP, a Texas-based company, began selling the fish to the public in December of last year. CEO Alan Blake said the fish weren’t originally intended to be household pets; on the contrary, they were engineered with a much more scientific purpose in mind. The fish were developed as part of an ongoing project at NUS to create a cheaper, more efficient way to detect water-borne environmental pollutants.

The ultimate goal of the project is to make the fish fluoresce selectively – that is, only when toxins are present – allowing scientists to determine water quality just by looking for the telltale glow, rather than by using expensive and time-consuming water testing equipment. Scientists at NUS have isolated two types of gene “promoters” in the fish that could be used to activate the fluorescence in response to stress or a change in estrogen levels that might be caused by pollutants.

“GloFish are the first stage of that development process,” Blake said.

Since GloFish fluoresce continuously, their value as a pollution indicator is non-existent, but Blake said he recognized the brilliantly colored fishes’ potential as an addition to aquariums when he was working with NUS scientists two and a half years ago. Rather than ignore the fish because they were still in development, he started Yorktown Technologies and began to work toward making GloFish available to consumers.

“We’re thrilled to be able to share these fish with the public,” Blake said.

When Blake announced that he planned to sell GloFish commercially, their status as genetically modified animals brought them under intense scrutiny. As with all genetically modified species, there was a great deal of concern within the scientific community regarding the possible environmental risks posed by the fish.

Eric Hallerman at Virginia Tech, William Muir at Purdue University, and Perry Hackett at the University of Minnesota, among others, have determined that GloFish pose no more danger to the environment than ordinary zebrafish. Nearly 200 million ordinary zebrafish have been sold in pet shops over the past 50 years. Many articles have been published on the subject, and Blake said scientists have unanimously agreed that the genetic modifications do not hurt the fish, since the genes are added to the fish at the embryo stage and do not produce any harmful side effects.

“You can probably count on your fingers the number of times scientists are unanimous on something like this,” Blake said.

Blake said the zebrafish, which require very warm water to survive, do not live in the wild anywhere in the United States – even in temperate states like Hawaii and Florida. He said scientists agree that even if the genetically altered GloFish did escape into the wild somewhere in the U.S., they would not survive.

Based on the extensive research concluding that GloFish are as harmless as their unaltered counterparts, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration chose not to regulate the fish in any way. Blake said the FDA announced its ruling with unusual speed for such a controversial issue.

“I think there was so much evidence that there was no environmental risk that the FDA was able to make their decision relatively quickly,” Blake said.

The Center for Technology Assessment and the Center for Food Safety did not agree with the FDA’s decision and sued them regarding the GloFish decision on January 14. Joseph Mendelson, CFS legal director, said in a press release that the company is concerned that the GloFish could be dangerous to put on the mass market.

“We are suing to prevent the GloFish from opening the floodgates for all manner of genetically engineered animals,” Mendelson said.

No significant progress has been made in the lawsuit.

GloFish Ethics

GloFish have been very well received, Blake said, but not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea of keeping genetically modified animals as pets. Critics of the fish say that selling them to the public is an unethical use of a technology that should only be used for scientific purposes, if at all.

Blake said the decision to market GloFish was not treated lightly, and the venture is not a purely commercial one. He said his company will be diverting a portion of the profits from GloFish sales back to Gong’s laboratory at NUS to help fund the continuing effort to turn the fish into pollution fighters.

“These fish were developed for a valuable and beneficial purpose,” Blake said. “We take this responsibility very seriously.”

Robert Warner, a professor of marine biology at UCSB, said many household pets are actually genetically modified animals, including dogs like poodles and Dalmatians, that were created by crossbreeding.

“We have plenty of genetically modified animals running around, but the difference is that in this case a specific gene was added,” Warner said. “Honestly, I don’t think we’ll end up with any frankenfish on our hands.”

Lauren Uhler, a biology student at Santa Barbara City College and the fish specialist at Ark Pet & Supply in Carpenteria, said she is very excited about the progress that has been made in genetic science. She said she thinks the GloFish is a perfect example of that progress, and that she supports Blake’s decision to share it with the public.

“Personally, I think it’s amazing what we can do with genetics,” Uhler said.

Blake stressed that the fish were developed nearly two and a half years before he created his company, and that they were not created with any kind of commercial purpose in mind. He said he hoped people would be able to put aside their personal beliefs and at least recognize that GloFish were designed to help the environment, not to hurt it.

“I hope that opinions don’t get confused with facts,” Blake said. “We certainly do believe that we are on very ethical ground.”

The California Ban

Despite the FDA’s judgement that the fish are not an environmental threat, the California Fish and Game Commission decided in 2003 to prohibit the sale and ownership of GloFish, or any other “transgenic” fish, in California. This legislation makes California the only state in the country to impose restrictions on the fish. Michael Flores, who was the president of the commission at the time the decision was made and is still a member, said he was the only one out of the four commissioners to oppose the ban.

Flores said the other members of the commission primarily opposed the sale of the fish on ethical grounds. He said they also cited the possibility of the fish escaping into the wild and harming the environment as a factor in their decision. However, scientists have dismissed that scenario as unrealistic because of zebrafishes need for a warm-water habitat.

“Also, anyone who is an outdoorsman knows that something that glows in the dark is not going to last long in the wild,” Flores said.

Since Flores saw no scientific reason to regulate the fish, he said he had wanted the commission to allow more time for people to submit evidence on both sides of the argument before basing its decision solely on ethical beliefs.

“I myself didn’t think there were enough issues to justify regulating the fish,” Flores said. “I have to base my opinion on science, and the science isn’t there.”

Other commission members, such as Sam Schuchat, did not feel the same way as Flores.

“For me, it’s a question of values; it’s not a question of science,” Schuchat said to the Associated Press Dec. 3. “I think selling genetically modified fish as pets is wrong.”

Another opposing commissioner, Bob Hattoy, told the Associated Press that he thinks California is setting a precedent, which should not be taken lightly.

“We might be the only state that doesn’t do it because we’re the only smart ones,” said Hattoy.

Uhler said she has seen many customers seeking GloFish leave the pet store empty-handed and unhappy after she tells them the fish are banned in the state.

“People come in very excited about the fish, then they seem really disappointed when they find out they are illegal in California,” Uhler said.

In an effort to change that, Uhler said she is considering starting a petition to bring before the Fish and Game Commission demanding that it remove the ban on GloFish. She said that even if the commission refuses to reverse its decision, many Californians will find other ways to get the fish – most likely from stores in neighboring states like Nevada and Arizona.

“Most people who are really into fish won’t let the ban stop them from getting them,” Uhler said.

Blake said demand for GloFish has been incredible, although about two of three newspaper articles reporting on the subject say sales are moderate. Some stores had the GloFish as early as December 11 of last year after a flurry of media attention sparked widespread interest in the fish.

“We get an enormous number of emails from people searching for the fish,” he said. “We have found that the public has been overwhelmingly accepting of the technology.”

If all goes well, Blake said he plans to eventually apply the fluorescence gene to other species of fish, but that his company will be sticking with zebrafish for the time being. In addition, he said that fish lovers seeking even more variety in their aquariums could look forward to the release of green and yellow GloFish in the near future.

Blake said he hoped the fish would eventually be legalized in California, but that it is up to Californians themselves to decide whether or not the ban will stay.

“If the people of California feel strongly enough about the fish and voice their opinion to the commission, everything could change.”