Genetically Modified Pets – Available Now!

Genetically Modified Pets – Available Now!

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Humans have used selective breeding for a long time to make animals look and function as we want them to. Pugs and dachshunds are just two examples of this process, there are many more.  Now, however, geneticists are developing gene editing techniques that can alter animal genes and bring us new animals within one generation of breeding.

Think this could never happen? It already has, and the creatures are already on the market. Take for example, GloFish. They are glow-in-the-dark fish that have been genetically modified to beam out fluorescence all night in their tanks. And they are quite the beautiful spectacle.

Glowing zebrafish were the first GloFish available in pet stores. And now there are other species, like the tetra fish, which are available in fluoro colours, including electric green, sunburst orange, moonrise pink, starfire red, cosmic blue, and galactic purple. These fish have sold so successfully, that other species have been “fluorofied” including the “electric green” tiger barb fish.

These “new” fish are one of the first genetically-modified (GM) creatures to become publicly available for general consumers. And yet, these creatures were not originally developed for the ornamental fish trade, they came into the pet market in a roundabout kind of way.

In 1999, Dr. Zhiyuan Gong and his colleagues at the National University of Singapore extracted a green fluorescent protein from a jellyfish, that naturally produced bright green fluorescence. They inserted the gene into a zebrafish embryo, allowing it to integrate into the zebrafish’s genome, which caused the fish to be brightly fluorescent. Their goal wasn’t to develop a new kind of pet. They had other more altruistic intentions. They wanted to develop a fish that could detect pollution by selectively fluorescing in the presence of environmental toxins. The development of fluorescing fish was the first step in this process, and the National University of Singapore filed a patent application after achieving success in getting fish to glow. They also played around with “glowing coral” genes, and managed to make other fish glow. Later, a team of researchers at the National Taiwan University succeeded in creating a fluorescent green medaka (Japanese rice fish).

 

A U.S. company soon learned of the glowing fish, and wanted to commercialise them. Yorktown Technologies, a company in Texas, met with the creators of the glowing fish. A deal was signed whereby Yorktown obtained the worldwide rights to market the fluorescent zebrafish as pets. Yorktown branded the creatures “GloFish.” Another deal was also made with a Taiwanese company to sell the bright green Japanese rice fish in Taiwan under the name TK-1. Taiwan became the first country to authorise sales of a GM organism as a pet. The USA were not far behind, but it took a little longer to get the fish onto the market because in America the new species needed to get past various levels of red tape.

There were some concerns about the introduction of these new animals into the environment. If they escaped and got into the wild, they could breed with wild fish. If offspring glowed, then they would have no camouflage protection from predators. They would be easily seen and therefore consumed quickly as a snack. If they interbred with fish stocks that humans eat, like, for example, herring or mackerel, then these fish could also become fluorescent and therefore be decimated by predators before humans had a chance to harvest them.

Despite these concerns, the Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over all GM animals in the USA, didn’t think this was likely. They said, “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 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.”

 

The idea was put to scientists. They found that there were already 200 species of naturally-occurring fluorescent fish, so the fluorescence trait is widespread in fish lines anyway. And those fish were doing just fine.

Public sentiment was watched. How would the public react to these controversial agricultural biotechnologies? Really well, actually. People wanted exotic pets more than they wanted to worry about the potential consequences. One hundred thousand fish were sold in less than a month in the USA, at US$18.60 each. While the GloFish is the only GM creature available on the market in the U.S.A, if their success is anything to go by, there will be more.

 

OTHER AQUARIUM FAVOURITES

Novelty aquatic life doesn’t end with fish. Glittering sea horses are Vietnam’s contribution to genetically-engineered pets. They are a product of research that has been going on at Vietnam National University’s College of Science. A light-emitting gene, extracted from jellyfish, was mixed with tiny grains of gold, and then injected into sea horse eggs. The seahorses actually glittered when they came into the world.

The golden seahorse

 

The scientists glittifying the seahorses have a greater plan to use this type of gene editing to treat incurable diseases. They now plan to apply the technique to treating diabetes. But in the meantime, some pet owners have golden seahorses. One would hazard a guess that these would be quite the dinner party talking point.

 

LEGAL ISSUES

As for acceptance of such genetically-engineered creatures, the U.S.A. seems to be streets ahead of everyone else. As far back as ten years ago, the FDA drew up guidelines for genetically-engineered animals. Generally speaking, Americans are going to be able to buy all sorts of genetically-modified pets, should they hit the market.

Not so in the European Union. The import and sale of genetically-engineered pets including the GloFish have been banned. However, these fish can be found in Europe. The Netherlands’ Ministry of Housing, Spatial Planning and the Environment found at least 1,400 fluorescent fish were for sale in various aquarium shops. So, laws will be created, but it seems they will be ignored by the drive for novel pets. This is an unstoppable trend in pets, so do we fight it? Or do we legislate for what will be inevitable anyway? And what other novelty animals can we expect to see in the future?

 

LAP PIGS

Pigs are very cute but they don’t make ideal household pets, particularly because some can grow to a size that is not compatible with indoor life. But with so many people in China moving out of the countryside and into big cities, Chinese gene boffins have bred a genetically altered micro-pig, which is perfect for small apartment life. In fact, they have been nicknamed “teacup” pigs because they are so tiny.

Pocket-sized pet pigs may soon be available from a pet shop near you!

 

The Chinese biotech firm that made them, Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) has said that its pocket pigs will not grow larger than 33 pounds, about the size of Queen Elizabeth’s corgis. It is only early days, so prices are high: one little pocket pig costs around €1,300. But you can choose the colour and even the patterns it’s likely to have.

BGI didn’t start out as a pocket pet pig company, in fact, the pig was developed as a laboratory model for studying human ailments. Smaller pigs are easier to look after in lab situations and cheaper to feed, among other benefits.

Here’s where the pocket pig is different: Usually, gene scientists will mix genes or add genes when manipulating the breeding process of such animals. But this situation is different: The little piggies were created by gene editing. New genes weren’t added: existing genes for growth were cut out. This “gene cutting” method has great potential to eliminate genetic disease in humans and ease a lifetime of suffering. In fact, practical applications are being used right now in farming. Cattle have been “gene edited” so they grow more muscle. Dairy cows have been “gene edited” so they don’t grow horns, saving them from having to get their horns cut off mechanically.

 

BGI has said that any profits made from pet micro pigs would be plowed back into medical research. So lap pigs could provide funds for the greater genetic good. But this creates new questions: what other animals could we make into miniatures? Could we have lap ponies? Lap polar bears? Lap giraffes? Of course we could. What little kid wouldn’t want a lap hippo? Or a teacup lama? Oh the places you could go with gene editing…

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