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Updated on: March 2023
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GloFish, the Genetically Modified Aquarium Fish
Controversy surrounds the GloFish, is a fluorescent freshwater aquarium fish created through genetic modification. It is the first genetically modified pet available to a mainstream market.
Lit by black lights, they appear to actually emit light like fireflies, and shelves of pet stores are lined with aquarium kits made to accentuate the flourescent feature of this strange fish variety. Owing to the unusual and exciting nature of these creatures--a trademarked variety called the GloFish--they have become extremely popular among teens, children, and young adults.
But just what are they? What brilliant act of nature created a hardy freshwater fish with the stellar colorations of a deep-sea beauty? Disappointingly, the GloFish was not created by any act of nature--it is a creation of humanity, trademarked in 2002 by YorkTown Technologies as the result of genetic modification.
The GloFish was the first genetically modified organism to become widely available as a pet, although it wasn't originally created for that purpose. In the late 1990's, a group of researchers at the National University of Singapore extracted a flourescent protein gene from a jellyfish. They inserted the gene into the genomes of the zebra danio, and found that it produced a lively, strange variety of fish.
The goal of the original GloFish project was to develop a fish that could detect pollution by glowing only when exposed to certain toxins. Although this project fell through, it succeeded in creating a variety of fish that now dominates the aquarium market in the United States, and may potentially be a risk to other strains of zebra danio.
Despite protests from consumers and environmental activists, the Food and Drug administration--the only United States organization to regulate genetically modified organisms--released a statement in 2005:
"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 zebra danio 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."
In other words, because the GloFish is not intended to be used as food, our government made no effort to regulate the production and sale of the fish. The long-term effects that the new jellyfish gene may have on the zebra danio species and other aquarium fish remains unknown and unstudied.
The only state to thus far ban the sale, reproduction, or ownership of the genetically modified GloFish is California, which has banned the sale and trade of all genetically modified fish since January 2020. Canada, Australia, and the European Union have instituted bans on the GloFish, as well.
Although some find the appearance of the GloFish unsettling with consideration to the natural state of the zebra danio, the fish commands a second look. Almost no one can look at the trademarked "Starfire Red", "Electric Green" and "Sunburst Orange" genetically modified fish without finding themselves awed (and perhaps a bit startled) by the powers of modern science.