Something fishy?
December 20, 2004 8:37 AM   Subscribe

Singaporean scientists genetically modify zebra fish to detect water pollutants by turning fluorescent. An American company realizes there's a consumer market for novelty glow-in-the-dark fish, and starts selling the US's first genetically modified pet. While the FDA, which oversees GM animals, 'finds no reason to regulate', California's Fish and Game Commission bans sales in the state over ethical concenrns, and a coalition of watchdog groups files suit to support a national ban.

A year later, GloFish are still on sale, and California's reconsidering its sales block. With the first GM pet quietly swimming into homes, and others (like hypo-allergenic cats) close behind, are we ready for a designer pet invasion?
posted by thomascrown (50 comments total)
I'm sure it'll be just as benign as previous unregulated altered organisms have been.
posted by ursus_comiter at 8:43 AM on December 20, 2004

I'm curious why they even went so far as to genetically engineer these fish. I can remember going to the pet store when younger and seeing fish that would look fluorescent under certain kinds of light.. black light maybe? I think they may have just been injected with light sensitive pigment though, not quite genetic engineering. Seems like an easier process that way..
posted by kimba at 8:45 AM on December 20, 2004

Awk! Polly shouldn't be!
posted by EmoChild at 8:46 AM on December 20, 2004

There would seem to be an ethcial question here outside that of genetic manipulation, in that you have to poison the fish in order for it to glow.
posted by biffa at 8:47 AM on December 20, 2004

Biffa, to clarify: the first step in making a "glow in pollution" fish was apparently making a "glow all the time" fish, which is what the US company is selling, so people don't have to do something sinister like pouring mercury into the tank just to light up their fish.
posted by thomascrown at 8:53 AM on December 20, 2004

Hey, these bunny ears are tied on with little strings.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:58 AM on December 20, 2004

I hear the market for jackelopes is going to blow the fuck up.
posted by zpousman at 9:06 AM on December 20, 2004

It would be great if there was a rodent with the low-maintenance, low-smell properties of a gerbil and, say, the intelligence, affection, omnivorous appetite of a rat.
posted by Ryvar at 9:10 AM on December 20, 2004

I'm just waiting for the first Wolvogs to go on sale.
posted by Vaska at 9:16 AM on December 20, 2004

Genes want to be free!
posted by rushmc at 9:19 AM on December 20, 2004

The use of GM fish to detect pollution seems like a great use of the technology. Breeding them for pets was inevitable. If people want to be concerned about ecological disasters they should try to keep natural, home grown organisms from being srpead all over the planet. ie zebra mussells, kudzu, woolly adelgid and such. A glow in the dark, tropical fish is not going to have an edge over the indigenous fauna.

GM as a technology is interesting. Its application by money hungry, ecologically ignorant business people is scary.
posted by recurve at 9:22 AM on December 20, 2004

Ryvar: It would be great if there was a rodent with the low-maintenance, low-smell properties of a gerbil and, say, the intelligence, affection, omnivorous appetite of a rat.

Uh, yeah. Because the rat has been such a boon to humanity in its undomesticated state--spreading plagues, giving us hantaviruses, spoiling crops, infesting cities--oh yeah, we need us some more super intelligent, omnivorous rodents! But hey, they won't smell as much, at least.

It's not the designer pets that I mind. It's the escaped-into-the-enivironment, mutant hybrid feral designer pet problems they cause.
posted by emjaybee at 9:24 AM on December 20, 2004

If the fish glow in polluted water, and glowing fish are valuable, wouldn't that make the the polluted water a valuable resource?
posted by R. Mutt at 9:25 AM on December 20, 2004

See also, this previous discussion from last year.
posted by piskycritter at 9:29 AM on December 20, 2004

why can't they just "genetically modfiy" humans to detect common sense...

but aside from that, I want a QUONSARFISH
posted by Hands of Manos at 9:33 AM on December 20, 2004

It would be great if there was a rodent with the low-maintenance, low-smell properties of a gerbil and, say, the intelligence, affection, omnivorous appetite of a rat.

I love that movie!
posted by odinsdream at 9:34 AM on December 20, 2004

Do fluorescent fish glow?

Fluorescent fish absorb light and then re-emit it. This creates the perception that they are glowing, particularly when shining a black light on the fish in a dark room. For tips on the best way to display your new GloFishâ„¢ fluorescent fish, please visit our GloFishâ„¢ Display page.

posted by gagglezoomer at 9:35 AM on December 20, 2004

The seaweed, called "algae" by biologists,

Right there I'm thinking maybe these people don't know what they're talking about. "Cloning" something doesn't make it GM. I'm pretty sure that seaweed is a regular old invasive species rather than a mutant superweed. If algae can be considered a weed, of course.

As for the fish, I presume the intended use is to place them in small cages in areas of concern and see if any of them start to glow. It would likely be used to complement chemical monitoring, which can easily miss pollution if its sporadic. Not a bad idea but somewhat expensive, I'd imagine. Seaweed also takes up metals and is a fine indicator of pollution and we seemingly have lots of that.
posted by fshgrl at 9:35 AM on December 20, 2004

I think this is kind of a cool idea, of course, we'll screw it up and soon we'll have oceans overflowing with glowing guppies and if all this ends up in a Kevin Costner lookalike with gills, I'm going after the scientists.

I keep fish, I don't want a glo-fish. But I would totally get a ferret with George Bush's face on it. Weasels is as weasels does. Or is that evil always shows its true face?

fshgrl, yeah but until they can make the seaweed glow, its just not as cool as a light up fish!
posted by fenriq at 9:48 AM on December 20, 2004

Here and here are some less hyperbolic links regarding taxifolia.

It is not just an invasive species. The nasty version of it was cloned in a German aquarium, found to be excellent for aquarium displays and shipped all over the place. It's gotten into the wild in the Mediterranean, a San Diego lagoon and in Australia and spread rapidly. Most critters can't eat it and the stuff grows so fast and is so hardy that it replaces the normal plant growth and spreads desolation by disrupting the food chain.
posted by ursus_comiter at 9:49 AM on December 20, 2004

emjaybee: Way to go. Mice spread Hanta virus. Fleas spread plague. Infesting cities? Weren't they generally there first? Rats exist in larger numbers in the wild, anyway. Besides, rats will eat bugs like cockroaches, weevils, beetles, worms and more.

Don't be dissing the noble rat, sucka. Their human-similar immune system, nervous system and their general intelligence has served humanity through science better than even pigs or monkeys. We owe rats more than a little respect, not the other way around.

Also, I'm pretty sure most or all genetically engineered pets are going to be sterile and unbreedable, how else are the designers going to protect their patents?

I want a rat-sized rhinoceros or elephant. Or a rhinoceros-sized rat.
posted by loquacious at 9:51 AM on December 20, 2004

Emjaybee: the role of the rat in spreading disease historically is GREATLY exaggerated, to say the least. They've been incorrectly blamed for the Black Death, along with spreading other diseases, by ignorant people who simply don't know any better. This is a topic my wife knows far more about than I do, however, and I'll ask her to give it a proper treatment later on today.

As pets rats are extremely intelligent (can learn their names, basic tricks, etc.) and greatly enjoy affection and interaction with humans - they're a lot like small rodent-shaped puppies, in fact. With all the mess, curiosity, and need for attention that implies.

The problem with rats is that they pee everywhere, and worse still they drag their tails through it, on top of this their urine has quite a strong odor.

On the flip side of the coin you have gerbils - gerbils are aloof, meticulously clean, barely urinate at all due to their desert heritage, and most importantly don't use their urine to mark their territory (they have a non-offensive scent gland on their stomach that they rub on objects they wish to mark instead). A large (30 gallon) gerbil cage with 6" of litter only needs to be changed every 2-3 weeks.

The problem is that gerbils really aren't very socialable, especially in comparison to dogs, cats, or rats.

For people living in apartments who aren't permitted to have dogs or cats, a cross between the rat and the gerbil with the best aspects of each would make for a very ideal pet.
posted by Ryvar at 9:52 AM on December 20, 2004

but aside from that, I want a QUONSARFISH

posted by three blind mice at 9:53 AM on December 20, 2004


Does this come with the ability to climb out of its tank, find the nearest sewing kit and then shit in your thread?
posted by biffa at 9:56 AM on December 20, 2004

Ursus, it is an invasive species, a kudzu of the ocean if you will. According to the article the cold water variety was observed in the tropical aquarium at the Wilhelmina Zoo in Stuttgart, Germany so it doesn't even sound like they bred it on purpose.

Too bad whoever saw that little patch out in front of the Monaco Aquarium didn't dig it up right away.
posted by fshgrl at 10:03 AM on December 20, 2004

Besides, rats will eat bugs like cockroaches, weevils, beetles, worms and more.

I think it's that and more part that people get upset about.

Give the glo-fish four butts, and I'll put my money down.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:04 AM on December 20, 2004

ursus, your nasty seaweed is not genetically altered. a cold tolerant variety was probably found and then asexually propagated or cloned. it's definitely a sucky organism but it's different than gm spawned pets.
posted by recurve at 10:09 AM on December 20, 2004

biffa, yes but it will do so with wit, charm and grace defying its girth or birth.

Such is the enigma of the quonsarfish.

C-D, damn right, any GM animal should have AT LEAST four butts! Anything else is an abomination of nature! Now if we can only get started on the bearded chalk fish.
posted by fenriq at 10:15 AM on December 20, 2004

I was under the impression that one of the side effects of the manipulation was shorter life and higher probability of sterility (due to unmatched genes, even between two modified fish)

Will these fish even survive long enough to breed? If so, won't they have to fend off the dreaded sewer alligators we all created by flushing our other pets?
posted by mystyk at 10:18 AM on December 20, 2004

This Ratfishocerosapequonsartigerphant has only 4 asses! It's of no use to me, I'll have to burn the lab!

Three blind mice's pictar linky is plonkered on this end. I really want to see that. I think.
posted by loquacious at 10:22 AM on December 20, 2004

loq: it's the 3-eyed fish from the Simpsons.
posted by Ryvar at 10:28 AM on December 20, 2004

No DNA in my backyard!
posted by iamck at 10:33 AM on December 20, 2004

My gerbil, Peanut, was a very sociable little critter. Highly amusing, very happy to hop into one's hand for a pat or a snuggle, and routinely more entertaining than the bloodthirsty dwarf hamsters that followed her. Gerbils are highly underrated pets.

To those of you who have a gerbil, might I make the following suggestion: Toss in some hay. You have never adored your gerbil as much as you will while watching it methodically trim the hay down into one-inch sections like a mini-woodchipper.

Of course, now my wife and I have moved on to devil bunnies:

posted by WinnipegDragon at 10:41 AM on December 20, 2004

Not to drag this into Rats: Good or Evil, I was just trying to make the point that rodents, of many varieties, have been something less than a boon to humans. Just ask a farmer who's had their grain spoiled, or someone living in a slum whose kid has been bitten. It may not be the rats' fault, but that doesn't make me want to see more of them around. I live in NY, ok? I see them scampering across the sidewalks in the moonlight. I'm glad they're intelligent pets and good for laboratories and all, really, but if someone goes tinkering with them to improve them, it's hard not to have nightmares of even smarter, even harder to kill wild rats.

If their role carrying plague fleas has been overstated, that's good to know.

According to the CDC (, some species of rat do carry hantavirus, and others "may". But since they don't definitely identify the common brown rat as a carrier, I'll leave that alone.

back to topic?
posted by emjaybee at 10:42 AM on December 20, 2004

I'm pretty sure that seaweed [Taxifolia] is a regular old invasive species rather than a mutant superweed.

Kind of doesn't really matter, does it? If you introduce a species into an ecosystem that's not prepared to deal with it, and it spins out of control, then why does it matter whether it's an "invasive species" or GM?

So "GM or natural" is kind of a red herring, inasmuch as the species can be as destructive whether or not they're GM.

But only kind of, since GM technology does have the capacity (and increasingly so) to create organisms that are superior by design. Evolution by its nature tends to produce non-optimal results; with design, as with Ryvar's RatBil, you can elect to get rid of a lot of non-optimal aspects. The hypothetical RatBil is small enough to compete against mice, intelligent, and less easy to detect because of its cleanliness. One would hope that the GM'ers would have the presence of mind to design-in a low birth rate or some other competetive disadvantage, but I don't have much faith in them to be that clever.

At any rate, anti-competetive features like low birth rate could be less effective than you might think. Consider the Tse Tse, which has a very low birth rate, and yet is damn near impossible to eradicate because it invests a great deal of care in reproduction. RatBils would be intelligent enough to learn and transmit what amount to culture; they can learn intensive rearing, and teach it to their young.
posted by lodurr at 10:45 AM on December 20, 2004

Ah, blinky the quonsarfish! Yay. Thanks Ryvar.

emjaybee: Point refuted. Since when was it nature's job to be totally benign and a boon to humanity? At this point, we (as a species) owe rats (as a genus, or specifically Rattus Norvegicus for species) much, much more than rats owe us, if only because of laboratory service.

New York, yeah. Hey, I'm in LA and we have giant wild rats too. My problem with what you're trying to say is that you're saying it in a way that's generally unfounded and transparently biased. You should probably just say "I personally don't like rats." and be done with it.

Do you know many farmers that have recently had their grain spoiled by rats?

How about slum-living kids that have been bitten? I personally have never heard anything reliable about anything like this. Rats generally don't seek out animals 50 times their size and bite them on a whim, even a hungry whim. The generally only bite when provoked and in defense of themselves.

Feral dogs and cats are probably a greater problem. I'll see your giant sewer-dwelling rat and raise you with a pack of rabid, feral Rottweilers. We've actually had a couple of pretty serious attacks on the streets here in LA over the last 5-10 years.
posted by loquacious at 11:07 AM on December 20, 2004

lodurr that brings to mind another good point - rats themselves are very prone to dying painfully from tumors anytime after they turn 2 years old. Of the 10 or so rats my wife and I have owned, almost all of them spent their last months growing multiple tumors (we'd get them surgery for the first 2-3, but after that it just became prohibitively expensive) until it killed them usually via respiratory failure - I think only one of the ten saw their third birthday.

You know how you read 'X causes cancer in laboratory rats?' Breathing causes tumors of all kinds in rats, both benign and malignant. Rats compensate for this fact by having an average of 5 litters of 7 to 11 pups both years.

Gerbils, on the other hand, tend to exist in a sort of binary state - either they're alive and very healthy or they're dead with little prelude. They usually last 4-5 years, in my experience. Over the course of their entire lifespans, however, gerbils have 4-6 litters of 4-6 pups.

It would be nice if, once again, we could have the best of both worlds here, and limit birthrate down to, say, two-three for each of the 4-6 litters.
posted by Ryvar at 11:11 AM on December 20, 2004

Deb: What are you drawing?
Napoleon Dynamite: A liger.
Deb: What's a liger?
Napoleon Dynamite: It's pretty much my favorite animal. It's like a lion and a tiger mixed... bred for its skills in magic.
posted by pmbuko at 11:18 AM on December 20, 2004

What I got out of the GM kittens article is that if you have concerns over GM pets, start eating them and get the FDA involved.
posted by effwerd at 11:25 AM on December 20, 2004

On the subject of rats, I recommend this book. I am reading it, and it's very awesome, a great non-hysterical look at rats in New York.
posted by agregoli at 11:27 AM on December 20, 2004

Now if only I could get a hypoallergenic Twisty Cat.
posted by aburd at 11:27 AM on December 20, 2004

Now if only I could get a hypoallergenic Twisty Cat.
posted by aburd at 11:27 AM PST on December 20

HAH.. Your twisty cat is very reminiscent of Speedy the Kitten
posted by kimba at 11:34 AM on December 20, 2004

It's pretty much my favorite animal. It's like a lion and a tiger mixed... bred for its skills in magic.

Did you know that the liger actually exists?
posted by mr_roboto at 11:49 AM on December 20, 2004

Agregoli: Thanks for the book link. I'm going to have to pick that up if I find it.

mr_roboto: Did you know you're bruising my neck meat?
posted by loquacious at 11:59 AM on December 20, 2004

I thought ligers, according to that Napoleon guy, was a cross between a lady and tiger?

Anyway, I want a Glofish (TM).
posted by riffraff at 1:34 PM on December 20, 2004

ligers, again, aren't GM just very similar species that can interbreed and form a hybrid. Like mules. From what I understand they get so big they're pretty much impractical as a wild animal.

I think it's important to differentiate between the two. If half the attention that has been paid to keeping GM organisms under tight control was applied to natural stuff we'd all be a lot better off.

As for superior by design.... we haven't even come up with Christmas tree lights that work reliably. I'm a lot more worried about creating things that are horribly defective by accident than superior on purpose.
posted by fshgrl at 2:43 PM on December 20, 2004

Here in the land of Oz, we have the wonderful Cane Toad as an example of what happens when you import organisms into new environments without really understanding what they might do. GM'ing them first would be a pretty good way of ensuring that *everything* was a new environment for the critter.

I'm not against GM organisms per se, but our track record with releasing unmodified organisms leaves a lot to be desired, and invariably ends up with scientists saying 'well, we didn't think it would do *that*'.

Of course, as the proud owner of a wolfhound/mastiff/staffordshire bull terrier cross - Polly - I can also say that not all experimentation is bad. Some of the results are large, hairy, affectionate and make really cool wookie noises in the morning.
posted by tim_in_oz at 3:34 PM on December 20, 2004

The hypoallergenic cat is pure vaporware.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 3:52 PM on December 20, 2004

Did you know that the liger actually exists?

mr_roboto: Can you tell us more about the specifics of its magical powers?
posted by biffa at 4:02 PM on December 20, 2004

Did you know that the liger actually exists?

I think that the Life of Pi would have had a rather different ending with one of these in the boat!

Also, from mr_roboto's link, 800 to 1200 lbs - good grief!
posted by dmt at 5:17 PM on December 20, 2004

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