Genetic engineering promises a long line of improvements to animals - from fish that glow to mosquitoes without disease - but are federal regulators keeping a watchful eye?
As far as anyone can tell, the biggest threat from the world's first transgenic pet might be that it keeps a few goldfish awake at night.
But for opponents of transforming animals through bioengineering, the red glow emanating from the new GloFish might as well be a five-alarm fire.
Because the US government quickly agreed the fish was safe, concern is spreading that regulatory oversight of transgenic animals may be flawed.
A long line of genetically modified animals are under study: flea-resistant dogs, cats with nonallergenic fur, and designer mosquitoes that could outbreed the current pests but would be incapable of carrying diseases such as malaria. Thus, the tiny and innocuous GloFish has plunged the scientific and regulatory communities into murky waters.
"All the experts I've talked to don't have concerns about this particular fish, but it is the precedent for what else is coming; and what are the rules by which those fish or animals are going to be judged?" asks Michael Rodemeyer, director of the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology in Washington. "The question is, we think they're safe, but how do we really know unless somebody has looked at some data and made a decision about that?"
Some officials aren't ready to offer their blessing. On Dec. 4, the California Fish and Game Commission banned the sale of GloFish. Other states are studying whether to ban or regulate these and other transgenic fish. While glowing mice, insects, and rabbits have been bred in laboratories, GloFish represent the first transgenic animals that Americans can take home as pets.
But in a brief statement Dec. 9, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it would not regulate GloFish because they posed no threat to the food supply or "any more threat to the environment than their unmodified counterparts which have long been widely sold in the United States."
Consumer and environmental watchdog groups have reacted with alarm. Last week, the Center for Technology Assessment and the Center for Food Safety filed suit seeking a court order to stop the sale of GloFish pending federal approval.
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