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Glowing wild

A finger-length fish has put the Tampa Bay area at the center of debate over genetic engineering. GloFish, the first genetically modified pet, is produced commercially at only two ornamental fish farms, and both are in Hillsborough County. A recent lawsuit suggests that the GloFish could be a threat to public health and the environment and asks the federal government to suspend sales. Florida officials say don't worry, but public confidence may not be so easily won.

The GloFish was designed for a noble purpose: to create a fish that would glow when exposed to certain pollutants, a kind of test-tube canary in the mine shaft. It is a common zebra fish altered by inserting genes from a red sea anemone into the fish egg, so that the new fish appears bright red in daylight and glows when viewed under black light.

Sounds harmless enough, but there are potential dangers with such genetic experiments. A report by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences ("Animal Biotechnology: Science Based Concerns") addresses the fear that the DNA of engineered species could "become integrated into the DNA of another organism and thereby create a hazard." That is a particular concern with transgenic fish, because they readily escape into the wild.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration have denied permission, so far, for genetically engineered animals, such as salmon, that are intended as human food, both agencies decided not to regulate the GloFish. That is a dangerous precedent, said Craig Culp, spokesman for the Center for Food Safety, one of the plaintiffs in the suit. "The larger issue is that science is moving much faster than our government," he said. "We are suing to force the government to catch up with science."

Florida is already making an effort, according to Paul Zajicek, a manager with the Florida Division of Aquaculture. After being asked for permission to breed GloFish, the division read all of the available research on the subject, he said, and "we couldn't see a legitimate reason to stop production."

Yes, someone could eat a GloFish or some of the minnows could escape into Florida waters, but that is no reason for residents to worry, Zajicek said. Aquaculture officials assembled a task force of genetic engineering experts to review the GloFish decision and any future requests. "The next fish could be one we're concerned about," he said.

Florida aquaculture officials should be complimented for their activism, but many people will still worry about the GloFish. It has not been a big seller so far, and by any measure it is a frivolous use of genetic engineering. Bad publicity could bring unnecessary harm to Florida's overall aquaculture industry, of which ornamental fish production is but a small part.

A public debate on the GloFish is needed, and a good starting point would be the conclusion drawn by the Academy of Sciences: "There is a need for clarity about whether the regulatory agencies consider it within their charge to consider only the direct health and environmental impacts of biotechnology, or also the social or economic impacts of a technology that, in turn, might have an adverse health or environmental impact."

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