Frankenpigs coming

A normally farmed Atlantic salmon (foreground) next to the genetically engineered, fast-growing salmon that AquaBounty hoped would be in a store near you years ago/AquaBounty photo


At the behest of the Alaska salmon business, Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has made life hell for AquaBounty’s so-called Frankenfish but Frankenpigs appear to be wiggling their way toward the market with barely a grunt of political opposition.

Pioneered at Washington State University, the altered porkers are being heralded as a breakthrough in protein production.

“WSU researchers win historic FDA approval for gene-edited pork,” Oregon Public Radio headlined earlier this month.

Northwest News Network reporter Courtney Flatt summarized the views of Jon Oatley, a professor of molecular biosciences leading the WSU researcher, with the conclusion that gene-editing pigs “can take years off traditional selective breeding. And the ultimate goal is much bigger than grilling a few German-style sausages.

“Oatley said this type of bioengineering could help tackle world hunger and preserve endangered species, especially as the climate continues to change.”

Consider these the pigs to feed the world.

Improving on nature

Gene-editing pigs, which involves taking the stem cells out of a male pig with desired traits and inserting those cells into sterilized males to produce a legion of prime breeders, isn’t quite the same as what AquaBounty has done in boosting the growth of an Atlantic salmon by splicing in gene from a Chinook salmon and an ocean pout to create a faster-growing fish, but it’s not all that different, either.

And in the case of the pigs, a lot of people seem to be all for it.

Lydia Garas, a biologist at Highline College in Des Moines, Washington, told Flatt that the FDA has been way too slow in approving this sort of genetic manipulation.

“We can improve the life, the health, the well being of animals that are part of agriculture, and also we can reduce the number of animals that are producing a certain amount of food and the number of animals that are sacrificed in this process,” she said.

Her advice to consumers was “to not be afraid of progress and to not be so skeptical of science and the intention of scientists.”

Garas did make an argument that gene editing is not the same as producing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but just a new tool to speed up the old process of selective breeding.

The same argument, however, can be made for AquaBounty’s salmon. Humans have been crossing breeding plants and animals for centuries to create hybrids that meet human standards for higher performance.

Natural hybridization

Hybridization isn’t exactly rare in nature, either. Look no further than the human genome. Nearly all the non-Africans on the planet today still carry some amount of DNA that traces back to the Neanderthals, a now-extinct species, and a significant number of Africans have also been found to have a genetic connection to the Neanderthals.

This could only have happened the old-fashioned way with homo sapiens breeding with homo neanderthalensis, a different species.

Pink and Chinook salmon in Lake Michigan have also been engaged in this sort of cross-breeding for a couple of decades now. Their offspring – so-called pinook – were first observed in the St. Marys River in the late 1990s, according to researchers, and the fish are now relatively common in some of the Great Lakes.

There are no verified reports of pinooks in the Pacific Ocean, but it is likely, given the huge number of pinks spawning in Alaska, that the two species have interbred in Alaska. The general thinking seems to be that if young hatched from these breedings, they were too weak to survive in an ocean more hostile to salmon than the Great Lakes.

AquaBounty’s hybrids, of course, face no predation or competition pressures because they’re grown indoors and fed by humans. Their big problem is with people fearful of technological changes or worried about competition in the marketplace.

That has been a long fixation among Alaska commercial fishermen despite the repeated failures of their market tampering. They convinced the state to ban salmon farming in 1990 only to get buried under a tidal wave of farmed salmon from Norway, Chile, Scotland and elsewhere.

More than 75 percent of the salmon sold and eaten in the world today comes from farms, though little of it comes from AquaBounty. The company decades ago crossed Chinook and Atlantic salmon then added the gene from an ocean pout to create the fast growing fish it called an AquaAdvantage salmon.

Murkowski called it a Frankenfish, and her labeling trumped that of AquaBounty. The new fish was just a little too high-tech for her taste and that of her constituents and funders,  though the salmon’s origins track with the development of domestic agriculture.

Atlantic salmon have been crossbred with Chinook salmon the old-fashioned way to create what one might call Chinantics, and it is theoretically possible those could be bred to ocean pout the old-fashioned way as well, but Aqau Bounty took the new, easier and imminently more reliable path by splicing a pout and Chinook genes into an Atlantic salmon.

The genetically modified salmon proved to grow much faster than wild-type salmon. The FDA approved the fish for production in 2015, “but things came to a screeching halt soon after,” as the AgFunderNews put it at the time.

Fish war

“Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski and a number of other outspoken opponents began a vocal campaign against the commercialization of the salmon, based in large part on the decision of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that products featuring the fish wouldn’t require a labeling disclosure.

“Phrases like ‘Frankenfish’ appeared in headlines discussing whether AquaBounty should be required to provide such a disclosure. After a wave of media attention surrounding the topic, retailers like Costco, Trader Joe’s, Aldi’s, Whole Foods, Target, and Kroger released statements announcing that they wouldn’t sell AquaBounty’s GE salmon.”

A year later, the FDA issued an import ban on the salmon, which were being grown on farms outside the U.S., after Murkowski managed to get Congress to approve legislation blocking the sale of the salmon until the FDA came up with a labeling plan to make it clear to consumers the fish was genetically modified.

She obviously would have preferred it be labeled Frankenfish, but that didn’t happen.

The import ban was finally lifted in 2019, but a federal court judge in California the next year ruled that the FDA had inadequately analyzed the environmental consequences that might result from the sterile AquaAdvantage salmon escaping their land-based farm.

“The judge agreed with environmental groups who fear the genetic salmon might damage wild salmon populations,” Food Safety News reported at the time. The FDA was directed to complete an environmental analysis of the risks to the environment of escaping AquaAdvantage salmon.

It took the FDA until November of last year to complete that analysis, and public hearings on the draft weren’t held until December. AquaBounty continued to rear fish while this process was underway, however, and in 2021 announced its first sale of AquaAdvantage salmon. 

Where the fish went is unclear. The company won’t say, and fishing trade reporters have seemed unable to find them. Judging from AquaBounty revenue reports, the sales haven’t been big either.

Meanwhile, the political pressure on the company has continued. Canadian opponents of genetically modified foods are now celebrating an AquaBounty decision to stop producing AquaAdvantage salmon in Canada.

“This is a huge victory for everyone in Prince Edward Island and across Canada who protested against this dangerous technology,” Sharon Labchuk of GMO Free PEI told the Canadian Biotechnology Action Network in February, with the Lucy Sharrat, the network’s coordinator chiming in to chastise Canadian officials in Ottowa.

‘The federal government needs to stop approving GM animals and start listening to the public’s concerns about genetic engineering,” she said. It hasn’t, however.

Despite the opposition, AquaBounty is continuing to produce genetically modified eggs in Canada for use in growing fish at its Indiana farm and proceeding with the development of a second farm in Ohio.

The company has been bleeding money – it reported a net loss of $22.16 million in 2022 – but remains optimistic that once it gets the fast-growing AquaAdvantage salmon into full production the business will become profitable.

“Looking ahead, we anticipate markets being increasingly receptive to our plan to bring our land-based salmon to more customers,” AquaBounty CEO Sylvia Wulf told shareholders at the end of the year. “Protein that is produced efficiently and sustainably is in demand, and I look forward to delivering our product in greater quantities and creating long-term value for our shareholders and their communities.”

It remains to be seen whether the fish will be able to beat the pigs to serious space in the marketplace.













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