The 20 Year Long March of Transgenic Salmon: From Petri Dish to Baking Dish

The 20 Year Long March of Transgenic Salmon: From Petri Dish to Baking Dish

By Siwei Zhang

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has finally approved the sale and human consumption of a genetically modified (GM), fast-growing salmon in the US market. The salmon, commercially branded as AquAdvantage™, was developed by AquaBounty Technologies in Maynard, MA. On the day of the FDA clearance, the share of Intrexon Corp (NYSE: XON), the majority owner of AquaBounty, went up by 7.3% and closed at $37.55.

The research and development of AquAdvantage™ salmon started in the early 1990s, and is one of the first few projects conducted since the establishment of AquaBounty Technologies. The fish itself, which is of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) origin, harbors a single copy of stably integrated form of a growth hormone gene taken from Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha, the largest species of the Pacific salmon genus Oncorhynchus). Gene expression is under the regulation of a promoter sequence derived from ocean pout (Zoarces americanus), which allows uninterrupted growth throughout the year and a full maturation within 18 months, in contrast to the natural spring-summer growth season and 3 years growth time for Atlantic salmons.

Subsequent selective breeding programs further stabilized the line and made the product market-ready. In addition, in order to reduce the potential impacts on the environment to zero, the AquAdvantage™ salmon has been purposely designed to be genetically triploid. It is therefore sterile and cannot generate viable offspring with either wild-type salmons or with its own species, in the case such salmons were to escape from breeding farms, in a similar mechanism than has been long-employed in generating seedless watermelons. Moreover, the current marketing scheme of AquaBounty Technologies only allows the supply of genetically selective, female-only eggs to aquaculture farms, which further reduces the chance of potential inbreeding. Furthermore, in an environmental perspective, the reduced growth time implies less energy and resources will be required to achieve the same amount of salmon output, as well as a faster turnover time, which is a crucial factor for the profitability of aquaculture farmers.

However, it took significant time, energy, as well as resources to push the AquAdvantage™ onto the market. The fish line itself has been stabilized since the late 1990s, however, it took the FDA 5 years to finish its food-safety assessment in 2010, which is marked as the first step of the marketing efforts. An additional 2 years were spent on generating the environmental-impact statement, and it was not until November 19, 2015 that the FDA finally declared:

After an exhaustive and rigorous scientific review, FDA has arrived at the decision that AquAdvantage™ salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious.

As expected, the FDA move was met with swift opposition and protest from certain environmentalists, food-safety activists, as well as groceries and supermarkets, partially due to the FDA decision that such GM salmons do not require compulsory labeling to distinguish them from wild-caught or aquacultured salmons. Indeed, nation-wide grocery chains, including Trader Joe’s, Kroger Co., and Target Corp all expressed their disaffection over GM salmons, and the initial public acceptance is expected to be low.

Nevertheless, the FDA approval on the sale and human consumption of GM salmon marks the beginning of a new era. For AquaBounty Technologies, they will still need two years (one salmon generation time) to establish the breeding program and distribution chains. The first aquacultured AquAdvantage™ salmon is not expected to slip into our plates until 2018 or 2019. Hence, there will still be time to enhance public acceptance through marketing efforts. With this case approval from the FDA, future applications on similar GM foods, such as GM bananas and GM tilapia, are expected to be processed in a much smoother pattern, which denote a potential breakthrough point for a whole new market.

Further Readings:

FDA Has Determined That the AquAdvantage Salmon is as Safe to Eat as Non-GE Salmon (, PDF file) FDA Approves AquAdvantage® Salmon)

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