The Humanist; September 1, 2004.

The Atomic Fish: The Rising Controversy of Genetically Modified Pets

Tony Gill

Humans and fish have participated in a cultural coevolution no less complex than their ecological one. Our evolutionary roots-the amniotabegan a great divergence when a few amniotes crawled out of a primordial sea and left their finned relatives behind. But 360 million years later humans are directly manipulating fish genomes: rekindling a very ancient kinship and forever altering our ecological and cultural paths.

Our fish-altering genetic endeavors aren't always for our personal health, scientific research, or the betterment of humankind. In some cases these manipulations represent the singular creation of a thing of beauty. Fish have provided people with a source of beauty for almost as long as they have been raised for food. Our search for aesthetic appealfrom H. R. Gigers alien worlds to Pamela Andersens synthetic enhancements-historically transverses all types of media in an unabashed search for the beautiful, grotesque, strange, mundane, and new in all things real and imagined. Herein lies the caveat for the reason behind the creation of Glofish-a new breed of so-called glow-in-the-dark petsand a nexus in the coevolution offish and humans.

Like the Frankenfish of aquaculture, the aquarium industry now has its own transgenic aberration. The Glofish, or Night Pearl- biofish, is a Prometheus unbound, the first of its kind-that is, the first marketable transgenic pet, soon to invade a pet store near you. Caveat emptor!

This novel little creature-a one-and-a-half-inch freshwater fish called a Zebrafish (Danio rerio), with genetically modified bio- fluorescent or light reflecting cells in its tissue-is the first widely marketed transgenic pet in the world. The result is an entirely bright, almost glowing, green or red radioactive-looking fish. Used originally (and still) as a model in environmental research, the transgenic Zebrafish, one of many genetically manipulated species used in science, started out in the laboratory of Tsai Huaijan, a professor at National Taiwan University. He uses transgenic fish as "environmental sentinels" to detect industrial pollutants in lakes and streams. Essentially, the fish glows red or green when even miniscule traces of a specific harmful chemical are in the water.

The creation of the Glofish marks the time to reconsider our relationship with fish. The aesthetic motivation behind breeding ornamental fish started a cultural phenomenon almost 3,000 years ago. And today, according to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Inc., an estimated 13.2 million people in the United States have an aquarium in their homes. It's hard to deny the scope by which fish have now affected modern culture.

In one respect, fish belong to us as much as they do to nature. It is arguably acceptable within the scientific community to manipulate an organisms genetic integrity for a demonstrably beneficent cause, exemplified in laboratories all over the world. In the halls of science, guidelines and ethical committees are well established. But science, in some respects a step removed from popular culture and its sway, is grounded in practical rather than aesthetically based motives. The pet industry, on the other hand, lacking almost any standard ethical policy, is sustained purely on a profit-based sense of what is beautiful.

As trivial as that may sound, we shouldn't be too quick to discount the cultural value of aesthetics. The philosopher George Santayana, in a class on aesthetics at Harvard University, told his students, "Beauty is pleasure regarded as the quality of a thing." As such, he observed, beauty doesn't reside in the object but in the individual's sense of beauty. This in no way reduces the importance or the value of art or aesthetic experience. For Santayana, beauty wasn't relegated to museum art or to some limited arena of aesthetic experience; rather, beauty informed the whole of human existence.

Artist and theorist Eduardo Kac has broadened the horizon of "aesthetic experience" in what he calls "transgenic art." From similar technologies used to make the Glofish, Kac, in his The Eighth Day artwork exhibit at the Institute for Studies in the Arts at Arizona State University at Tempe presents an expansion of biodiversity beyond wild-type life forms. The title signifies an additional day after the seven-day period of creation as narrated in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, representing the evolution of fluorescent creatures worldwide. His work includes bioluminescent plants, a rabbit, and a dog called GFP-K9, a new breed that literally glows in the dark. Kac and his bio-art aren't alone. Natalie Jeremijenko at New York University's Center for Advanced Technologyclones trees, George Gessert breeds hybrid irises, and Steve Miller paints genetic portraits. All three were part of last fall's iconoclastic Paradise Now exhibit at Manhattan's Exit Art gallery, which featured thirty-nine artists whose work redefines the controversial fault line separating art and science.

Perhaps like Kac's "bio-art," the Glofish, viewed by some to be arbitrary, fanciful, and wanting of use value, is precisely what makes it a work of art. Genetic engineering has and will continue to shape our world. By removing it from its accustomed channels- that of the corporate realm-and placing it in an aesthetic context, genetic engineering, devoid of its utilitarian hegemony, produces the Glofish: a gratuitous and convivial use of technology. From this perspective the Glofish is a statement on Western political culture, with the irony of its corporate basis only a pragmatic necessity.

From a symbolic point of view the Glofish represents the chimera: a monster of legend, a cross-species hybrid, an amalgamation of body parts from different animals. This terrible creature of lore evokes alchemical fear because it is an affront to the sanctity of nature. By making the cultural transformation from fairytales and legends to suddenly appearing in our collective reality, the Glofish exposes the fears, superstitions, imaginations, and hopes attached to genetics, cross-species mutants, and alien life forms that humans have harbored for millennia. Now society has to decide how to respond to this culturally significant phenomenon.

If the Glofish appeals to our senses in both positive and negative ways, aesthetically speaking, is it, like Kac's bio-art, a critiquing mirror held up to society or even a hammer shaping society to shift toward an age of genetic commerce? Or is this some "freak show" crossing the line into animal abuse? According to Kac it certainly questions our moral judgments of value and perception on humanity's dubious notion of a divinely sanctioned supremacy over nature.

However, there are real risks associated with crossbreeding any animals regardless of the methods, whether it be selective breeding or transgenic crossing. And they shouldn't be negated by the fact that we have been selectively breeding animals for the past 10,000 years (plants even longer). Some would argue that direct genetic modification of animals is merely an extension of these traditional breeding techniques and thus poses no new fundamental ethical concerns. Therefore, if genetic modification of animals falls prey to charges of "playing God,""unnaturalness," and "treating animals as commodities," these same charges should be leveled at selective breeding. However, direct genetic modification is different in that it offers virtually limitless possibilities for transferring specific genes across vastly different species (of course, not all crossings are viable). These changes can take place in a single generation thereby greatly challenging a species' boundaries at a speed evolution and selective breeding will never match. On the other hand it can also be argued that, because the welfare changes brought about in selective breeding may be more gradual they can also be more insidious and difficult to spot at an early stage. The gradual nature of these changes can also lead society to accept features-in some breeds of pets, for instance-that would generally be considered unacceptable if introduced by rapid genetic modification.

The transgenic Zebrafish, once a research subject but now available to the public, has opened itself up to the wider moral debate. Some people may express a fear, distaste, revulsion, or general anxiety about the "unnatural" mixing of species-about creating chimeras, about altering the telos of species (so as to interfere with a fish's "fishness," for example), about crossing the species barrier, and about the intertwining of human and animal genes. Could this also herald a consequential genetic age of designer pets, a trend of cloned companion animals and strange interspecies crossings? In our post-Dolly era this line of reasoning is becoming ever more pervasive in the mind of the public. It has already started to challenge and change our ideas of what is normal and moral. But is this dystopian auguring warranted or even realistic? Could it be justifiable to manipulate a species' genetic makeup for completely trivial aesthetic purposes, as is certainly the case with Glofish?

The moral debate on the treatment of animals has its hoary roots in the Bible, including the writing of such germinal thinkers as Thomas Aquinas, Ren Descartes, and Immanuel Kant. If single univers\ally accepted ethical mores eluded these failed seekers, it seems more than likely the topic will continue to rage into the foreseeable future. With the advent of the Glofish transgenic pets are the latest chapter in the coevolution of fish and human culture. Whether or not society will deem it morally acceptable or reprehensible, we are now witnesses to a new designation for transgenic animals. First manipulated by science for research purposes, the transgenic Zebrafish has been transmogrified into the Glofish. From environmental to social sentinel the Glofish will be cast as an indicator as to how our society acted and reacted and ultimately was shaped by the approaching age of genetically manipulated pets. It may be that the future of the Glofish and all subsequent genetically modified pets will be determined on the mood and mores most prevalent in our culture at the time of their inception. This in turn will be influenced by how their distributors market them to the public and how quickly they, if at all, assimilate into popular culture. Even if the future role of the Glofish in American culture is quixotically contingent, one thing is certain: as with most novel and controversial items, like Eduardo Kac's bio-art, there will be the initial surge in popularity, fueled by both opposing and supporting forces, then a gradual waning of interest as the novelty wears off. What's left in the wake will be the future precedent for GM pets of all sorts. Glofish themselves may be a short-lived commodity in the pet industry; just another flashy vapor in a roily sea of strange and unnatural creatures. In another few years they may only be found in the laboratories that birthed them. But they are here right now-something new, something different-and maybe that's all the justification they need.

Like the Frankenfish of aquaculture, the aquarium industry now has its own transgenic aberration.

Tony Gill is a researcher at the National Institutes of Cancer, a writer, and student at Johns Hopkins University. He lives in Arlington, Virginia, and can be reached at

Copyright American Humanist Association Sep/Oct 2004

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