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Vol. 15, No. 2, 2016
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it's just a fish



Christopher Labos is a Montreal doctor (Division of Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health McGill University )who writes about medicine and health issues.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given a green light to a genetically modified salmon, the first GMO animal ever submitted for regulatory approval. Some think this will lead to the salvation of humanity, and others to its downfall. I think it’s just a fish.

What happened is that biotech researchers mapped the genome of the Atlantic salmon and then made two modifications. First, they incorporated the growth hormone gene of the Chinook salmon into the Atlantic salmon genome. Then they turned on a promoter to keep the growth hormone gene turned on year round. Normally the growth hormone gene is turned off during the winter when food is scarce. The result is an Atlantic salmon that grows bigger and twice as quickly, maturing in two years as opposed to four.

But that the mere fact that this salmon was genetically modified has raised a storm of protest. People are scared of GMOs because, to a large extent, they don’t understand the technology, and they They see it as something new and scary. That’s ironic, because we’ve been genetically modifying our food for thousands of years.

When the Spanish first explored the Andes, the tomato was a yellow cherry-sized fruit. Humans turned it into the big red juicy things we see in supermarkets. Ears of corn used to be one inch long but now they are over a foot. We have also done it to our animals. We turned wild aurochs into placid cud chewing cows. We turned hairy wild boars with tusks into smooth pink piggies. We created the mule. And of course we took the wolf and turned it into every dog on the planet from the chihuahua to the Great Dane. This wasn’t “natural evolution.” People purposefully created these animals. After all, did you really think a poodle could survive in the wild?

Our ancestors did this using a number of different means: selective breeding/planting, cross breeding/pollination and, of course, cloning. Seedless grapes, potatoes, and bananas are all clones, meaning that they are grown by transplanting a branch of the original plant into a new milieu. Incidentally, the word cloning comes from the ancient Greek word for branch and the process has been in use since before people knew about genetics or genes.

This ancient biotechnology is actually far more dangerous than what is practiced in a lab today. When you cross-breed two species of plants, you swap tens of thousands of genes randomly, with no real way of knowing what the final result will look like. With current biotechnology, you can change one gene at a time in a controlled fashion and study the results. People become scared when you talk about swapping genes, but this occurs all the time in nature. Genes flow between crops all the time when pollen is blown across fields by the wind or carried over by bees.

In the 1980s, scientists took the human gene for insulin and put it into a bacterium. The bacteria did not become highly intelligent. There was no global pandemic, nor a zombie apocalypse. The only thing that happened is that we created a new, cheap and safer way to get insulin that did not require slaughtering legions of cows and pigs for their pancreas. Now we can incorporate DNA into tiny viruses and use them to deliver DNA directly into cells. With that technology we might be able to cure cystic fibrosis, hemophilia and even fight cancer. It’s not quite ready for prime time yet, but pretty soon hopefully.

So if you’re scared about this new genetically modified fish, don’t be. This fish has been under FDA review for 20 years with no suggestion of harm. More broadly, GMOs do not cause cancer or any other disease. We have been genetically modifying our food since the dawn of civilization and nothing bad has happened.


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