Archived news articles - 2004

The Straits Times, 20 January 2004
By Tracy Quek

Red light or green light?

GLOFISH, those genetically-modified fish developed by National University of Singapore researchers, are selling like hot cakes in the United States.

And these fluorescent fish might well be the first genetically-modified pets to be sold in Singapore, if the authorities here give the go-ahead.

Normal zebra fish sport silver and black stripes. The GloFish are so named for their unique red, green, orange or yellow glimmer, resulting from the transfer of jellyfish and anemone genes into zebra fish embryos.

Aquarium supplies wholesaler Adec Trading and Services has asked the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) for a permit to import similar fluorescent fish from Taiwan.

But first, the AVA and the Genetic Modification Advisory Council must be convinced that the fish won't be an ecological threat if people tire of them and dump them in drains or ponds.

AVA's consent is a must to import or possess genetically-modified organisms. Offenders can be fined up to $10,000 and jailed for a year.

Adec knows this all too well.

It was fined $1,000 last year for possessing 434 fluorescent fish without AVA approval.

Dr Robina Teo of the council's secretariat said genetic engineers, microbiologists and ecologists from the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory and NUS department of biological sciences would evaluate the submission, the first for importing a live genetically-modified organism for commercial sale here.

It will look, for example, at the impact on the natural environment if the fish were accidentally released into the wild.

Last year, California banned the sale of GloFish, citing ethical reasons.

Asked if GloFish might be an ecological threat, NUS' Associate Professor Gong Zhiyuan said all experiments indicate that they are less fit than normal fish.

In the wild, they will be at a disadvantage in terms of survival and reproduction. He added: 'When they die, their dead bodies will be just the same as the dead bodies of wild zebra fish. There is no reason to assume that they will wreck the ecosystem.'

Texas-based Yorktown Technologies has sold 'tens of thousands' of the fish at US$5 (about S$8) each since early last month, said its chief executive, Mr Alan Blake.

Yorktown bought the rights to commercialise the fish from NUS for an undisclosed sum last year.

Judging from the splash the little swimmers are making in the US, shops here could be looking at a money-spinner.

NUS' Prof Gong said no local company has asked to license the technology. The complicated procedure they'd have to go through may put them off, he said.

NUS has a patent on producing the fish and companies keen on selling it would also have to enter into commercial agreements with the US institutions that developed the separate genes that give the fish its glow.

Outside Singapore, Taiwan pet store Taikong Corporation began producing the fish commercially early last year.

Four of six aquarium shops contacted in Singapore said they hope AVA will give the green light.

Mr Kenny Yap, managing director of ornamental fish specialist Qian Hu Corporation, said: 'If the customer wants the fish, then certainly we should have them.'

Fish fancier Edmund Ng cannot wait to get his hands on a GloFish. The 31-year-old bank executive said: 'It's special. It will be nice to switch off the lights and see it luminous in the fish tank.'

Some don't feel the same way.

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