Archived news articles - 2003

The Straits Times, 10 December 2003
By Chang Ai-Lien

NUS glofish to be sold in US ...but not here
Fluorescent zebrafish will hit pet shops in the US next month, but local aquarium owners lack intellectual property expertise to enable them to sell the fish here.

THE world's first genetically engineered pet fish will be swimming into fish tanks throughout the United States from next month.

Ironically though, the made-in-Singapore fluorescent zebrafish is not about to make waves here any time soon. That is because local companies do not have the intellectual property expertise to make it happen.

Apart from licensing technology from the National University of Singapore, which developed the fish and has a patent on producing it, companies keen on selling the fish would also have to enter into commercial agreements with the US institutions which earlier developed the different genes that give the fish its trademark glowing colours.

'Because licensing is so complicated, none of the local companies which approached us had the appropriate legal expertise.'

As a result, Singapore was beaten to the punch by Taiwan pet store Taikong Corporation, which began producing the fish commercially earlier this year.

And even attempts to sell these Taiwan-produced fish here were foiled after the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) fined aquarium supplies wholesaler Adec Trading and Services $1,000 for not having proper permits.

More than 400 fish, which came from Taiwan, were seized by the AVA. It has warned that anyone who imports genetically modified organisms into Singapore or possesses them without prior consent from the AVA can be fined up to $10,000 and jailed for a year.

But the Singapore-engineered fish will be making a commercial appearance soon - in the US.

Texas-based Yorktown Technologies recently bought the rights to commercialise the fish from the university for an undisclosed sum.

Aptly named the GloFish, the 2.5cm creature, which normally sports silver and black stripes, can be made to glow red, green, orange and yellow with the help of jellyfish and anemone genes.

NUS, which shipped several thousand fish embryos in a palette of colours to the US a year ago, is also set to get royalties from the sale of the fish, which are eagerly anticipated by fish enthusiasts and expected to be snapped up at US$5 (S$8.50) apiece.

'It's a form of personal satisfaction to see fish lovers enjoying my creation,' said NUS Associate Professor Gong Zhiyuan, who has also developed zebrafish which could be used to detect cancer-causing agents or pollutants.

'Hopefully, this will help the public understand and learn more about genetically modified (GM) animals, rather than fearing them.'

Tropical fish breeders in Singapore are well known for their expertise. Lately, they have been using high-tech means to hold on to the country's standing as the ornamental fish capital of the world, with a 24 per cent share of the global export market.

On the research front, the university's head of biological sciences Hew Choy Leong has produced gene-enhanced super salmon which grow at least four times faster and cost 40 per cent less to produce then conventional ones.

Answering concerns that the fish could escape and contaminate existing gene pools, Prof Gong said that it is more fragile than its wild-born cousins and is unlikely to survive if accidently released.

But the GloFish has been banned in California because of ethical reasons. Opponents claim that selling GM fish as pets is wrong.

'Using the same reasoning, we should close down the entire pet and tropical fish industries, which have for years relied on genetic manipulation to bring out special traits in animals.

'What we have done is no different,' he told The Straits Times.

Copyright @ 2003 Singapore Press Holdings. All rights reserved.

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