Jellyfish Genes for Pets Besides Fish?
Luminescence genes from jellyfish are now being used in canaries
By David Alderton
In Europe, just as in North America, a rapidly increasing range of designer dogs is attracting the headlines, while the Bengal—derived originally from cross-breeding between domestic cats and the Asian leopard cat—has now become one of the most popular cat breeds.
But there is one area where ownership patterns in the United States and Europe are not the same. When trademarked GloFish first went on sale five years ago throughout the United States (except California), they attracted considerable interest. These fish are still banned under both Canadian and European legislation and cannot be imported there because these zebra danios are genetically modified fish.
They were originally created at the National University of Singapore as a means of detecting environmental pollution. GloFish contain a special luminescence gene taken from jellyfish that causes them to glow an eerie shade of green and other colors. This effect is apparent under typical aquarium lighting and more obviously in a darkroom with a black light installed above the tank.
Now, however, rumors are circulating in Europe of an even more remarkable genetical engineering development involving a breed of canary called the raza Española. A French exhibitor of these canaries has supposedly transferred a similar fluorescent protein successfully from jellyfish into canary embryos, creating what has been dubbed by some as the Frankenspagnola breed.
He is said to have 10 pairs of these birds, which he now hopes to breed, and intends to apply this technology to other types of canaries in the future. Once the jellyfish gene has been introduced, it becomes part of the genetic makeup of the birds and can be inherited by their offspring.
Skeptics have dismissed the notion of these transgenic canaries, but although it may seem to be something from the realms of science fiction, the fact is that this type of cross-breeding has already been carried out with chickens. Scientists have created so-called transgenic poultry for research purposes to produce new cancer treatments. There are a range of different jellyfish genes that can be used to create the desired glow in various colors, although it is the skin rather than the feathers themselves that is primarily affected.
GloFish contain a special luminescence gene taken from jellyfish that causes them to glow an eerie shade of green and other colors.
Even if this canary story turns out to be untrue, however, and it may well be an elaborate hoax, it is now theoretically possible to manufacture pet birds in this way. Based on sales of GloFish, it also seems that would-be customers are quite open to buying such pets.
This development could have a major impact on the canary hobby, even eliminating the established practice of color-feeding certain breeds to improve their appearance for show purposes, particularly if it was possible to breed pure red canaries.
It was back in the 1920s that the red factor canaries of today were created. They were deliberately manufactured by a previous generation of genetic researchers who chose a South American finch, the South American black-hooded red siskin, to hybridize with canaries. Their ambition was to create pure red canaries, but instead, the nearest they achieved without resorting to color-feeding were orange-red birds.
The question is now whether more pets will be selectively manufactured by adding jellyfish genes into their genomes. Reptiles in particular would seem to be an obvious choice for genetic modification because they, like fish, are kept under lights, with their vivariums often including black lighting as well.
Although the color choice in bearded dragons has increased significantly through selective breeding, the impact of GloFish-type coloring in this popular pet species would be dramatic.
This could have a major impact on U.S. exports because many of the color morphs seen in Europe, in the case of popular species such as the bearded dragon or leopard gecko, arose in North America. If genetic modification was used to create new color varieties of such species, these could not be legally imported into Europe, cutting off a major market for U.S. breeders.
There has been relatively little debate over the ethical issues surrounding the creation of such pets. In some respects, it is not entirely dissimilar to the hybridization process that has led to the creation of red factor canaries—taking genetic material from one species and adding it to another—although the mechanism whereby this is now being achieved is far more sophisticated than in the past.
One thing that’s certain is that this debate is set to grow in intensity in the future. Already, the creators of GloFish have signaled that they may well offer other examples of fluorescent fish in the United States in due course and have also applied to sell their fish in Australia. <HOME>
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