The FDA is getting ready to approve the very first animal that has been genetically modified specifically to be eaten by humans.
If one of those fish up there looks a little, you know, larger than normal, that's because it is. The smaller fish is a regular ("natural") Atlantic salmon, and the bigger one is a genetically modified Atlantic salmon of the exact same age. The modified version, aka the AquAdvantage Atlantic salmon by AquaBounty Technologies, grows anywhere from two to six times larger than a normal salmon in half the time, with the largest weighing in at a staggering thirteen times the size.
The AquAdvantage salmon has had its genes artificially modified in two places to make this non-stop growth spurt possible. The first modification is a gene that encodes a growth hormone, and the second modification adds a gene called a promoter from a type of cold water eel. Combine the promoter with the growth hormone, splice it in to a salmon, and you've got a fish that never, ever stops growing.
Along with this growth spurt comes an appetite that would completely decimate any ecosystem that the AquAdvantage salmon might find itself in, which makes a lot of people understandably nervous about having this fish swimming around out there. To be clear, the AquAdvantage salmon is not intended ever to be released in the wild; rather, it's been designed to be raised exclusively in double-barrier landlocked fish farms. It's also completely sterile (well, 98% sterile), so that if some of these fish ever do somehow escape, they won't be able to reproduce or interbreed with wild populations.
Hrm, genetically engineered animals that "mostly" sterile are kept locked up in cages? What could possibly go wrong?
The FDA has the same question (although they're not as worried about killer dinosaurs, specifically), and they've spend years trying to figure out whether or not genetically modified fish farming is a good idea. It now sounds like their answer is a tentative yes, and after completing an environmental impact evaluation, the FDA has apparently "written a document supportive of its commercialization on the U.S. market," although the White House still has to sign off on the whole thing. And as for the big question: how does it taste?
"The U.S. FDA has extensively studied this fish and has declared it exactly the same as any other Atlantic salmon. There is no difference between the flesh of this fish and that of Atlantic salmon consumed every day," said Ronald L. Stotish, AquaBounty Technologies' CEO and president.
Arguably, we (as a species) been genetically modifying animals for consumption for millennia. Animals like cows and pigs and chickens have been bred to produce more of what we like to eat faster and more efficiently, often to the detriment of the animals themselves. Is this a good thing? That's certainly debatable, but when it comes to feeding the continually expanding number of people that we've got on this rock, it's going to take a whole lot of really fat fish to make it work.