Archived news articles - 2004

The Straits Times, 25 February 2004
By Chang Ai-Lien

S'pore should be angling for more bucks in fish trade
The humble fish has been a traditional money-spinner for Singapore, a trend which looks set to continue into its high-tech future.

Dollar for dollar, the returns seem to be quicker in coming than say, longer term life sciences work such as stem cell research.

Whether it's breeding the tropical beauties that flash inside aquarium tanks, or producing fast-growing fish to satisfy the world's ever-expanding stomach, researchers here are at the forefront of fish research.

And why not?

This is a field where Singapore has fewer rivals and a distinct advantage.

The country is already acknowledged as a giant in the world of tropical fish, with a strong grip on one-quarter of the global export market.

Latest figures from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) show it amounts to $74 million of ornamental fish sold all over the world last year.

The handsome return has inevitably attracted rivals from countries such as Indonesia and Sri Lanka, who are offering lower prices to grab a bigger share.

To ward them off, fish breeders here have been pumping money into quick solutions even as scientists open up new areas of research in the field.

One traditional company, Teo Way Yong and Sons in Seletar West Farmway, has pumped at least $3 million into creating high-tech vaccines to keep fish mortality rates down.

The company, one of the top 10 players in the business here, has three biologists, a fish immunologist and a fish expert on its R&D team and has also developed new pumps, filters and drainage systems to produce healthy fish.

It also stands to reason for Singapore to fund such research because its tropical climate gives it a natural advantage with some species.

The endangered dragon fish, one of the most treasured and expensive aquarium fish, does not breed outside the region, a fact not lost on scientists at Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory.

With molecular tools to decode the fish DNA, they plan to study breeding patterns and how to produce highly sought-after colours in the fish such as gold and red.

The ultimate aim is to crossbreed them, create new varieties as well as better-quality fish.

Meanwhile, the world's first genetically modified pet - the GloFish is making waves commercially. The locally-produced zebrafish contains jellyfish and sea anemone genes that make it glow as if dipped in fluorescent paint.

It's on sale across the United States, even as its creator Gong Zhiyuan, using the same technology, attempts to alter its body shape in his bid to produce another winner in a business where novelty sells.

'This is value-added work,' said the National University of Singapore researcher.
What could also put the zebrafish in the international spotlight is its potential in detecting cancer-causing agents or pollutants.

Researchers from NUS have developed such strains, as well as zebrafish that produce vaccines in their muscles.

By extending the technology to fish we eat, vaccines could one day come in the form of sashimi, rather than a painful injection.

In the longer term, the aim is to have the tiny transparent fish explain how human cancers develop.

This is a multi-million-dollar effort being pursued by about 50 scientists at various institutions in Singapore.

By determining what genes are being activated or turned off when the disease occurs, as well as the role of carcinogens, the researchers hope to be able to design drugs to block the genes or cancer-causing proteins from working.

Then there is work on fish for food.

Transgenic salmon - touted as the first contender on the menu when the authorities approve genetically modified animals for food, were developed by NUS head of biological sciences Hew Choy Leong.

He has produced gene-enhanced super salmon which grow at least four times faster and cost 40 per cent less to produce then conventional ones.

At the AVA's $33-million Marine Aquaculture Centre on St John's Island, researchers are perfecting state-of-the-art techniques for large-scale fish breeding and rearing, in the hope that this work will help produce almost half the fish people eat here.

These activities demonstrate that sometimes, big rewards come in less glamorous packages.

It's time the life sciences give tradition a few more dollars. Singapore's natural advantage is obvious.

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