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From lab to table

World’s first bioengineered animal approved as food has Memorial roots

By Kelly Foss

It’s been a long and winding road to bring the life’s work of a Faculty of Science researcher from an experiment in a lab to the kitchen table.

Dr. Garth Fletcher, head of the Department of Ocean Sciences, Faculty of Science, along with Dr. Choy Hew, a former Department of Biochemistry researcher, co-invented the technology behind the world’s first bio-engineered animal approved for human consumption.

Although it was approved as food by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2015, it will finally reach American customers for the first time late this year.

That’s when AquaBounty Technologies, which sells the transgenic salmon under the brand name AquAdvantage, will harvest its first salmonid raised in the U.S. and intended for sale there. In Canada, the salmon has been sold in stores since 2017.

Dr. Garth Fletcher
Photo: Chris Hammond

“The recent news that AquAdvantage salmon are being produced on a commercial scale for sale in the United States is exciting to say the least,” said Dr. Fletcher.

“Who would have thought that a high risk project initiated at the Ocean Sciences Centre 30 years ago would end up producing the founding generation of transgenic salmon that are being cultured for human production today? These approvals are good news for all academic researchers interested in exploring the use of genetic technologies to enhance food production worldwide.”

Dr. Fletcher says the development demonstrates that with care, good science and patience, innovative research in the somewhat controversial field can be taken from the laboratory bench to the marketplace.

Three decades in the making

Research on these genetically engineered (GE) salmon, which grow twice as fast as their non-GE farm-raised counterpart, began in a lab at Memorial as far back as 1982.

Drs. Fletcher and Hew formulated the idea of using gene transfer to produce strains of Atlantic salmon for aquaculture that could better tolerate the harsh winter conditions that prevail in Newfoundland and Labrador waters.

An immature Atlantic salmon.
Photo: Submitted

At the time, they were looking into adding an antifreeze protein gene to salmon that would allow farmed fish to be raised in sea cages in locations where water temperatures declined to lethal levels.

Such antifreeze genes are found in a number of Newfoundland and Labrador fish. Peter Davies of Queen’s University, the third member of the research team, had already isolated the one found in winter flounder.

It took the group a couple of seasons to figure out how to transfer the gene, but by the mid-1980s they were finally seeing it showing up in salmon DNA and being expressed and passed on from generation to generation in the laboratory.

“The thinking was that rapidly growing salmon would have worldwide appeal to the aquaculture industry.” — Dr. Garth Fletcher

However, the genes were only making trace amounts of antifreeze that were insufficient to protect the salmon from freezing.

“We decided to take what we had learned and see if it could be used to develop a fast-growing fish by transferring a growth hormone gene, rather than an antifreeze gene,” said Dr. Fletcher. “The thinking was that rapidly growing salmon would have worldwide appeal to the aquaculture industry.”

GE vs. non-GE

Those first tests began in 1989.

The following spring the tests began to pay off with big fish that were five and six grams in weight, versus non-GE modified salmon of the same age that were only about a quarter of a gram.

Drs. Fletcher and Hew patented the research and, with the encouragement of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, which funded the project, began looking for a private sector partner to take over licensing the technology and running the test fish farms. Elliot Entis, an American businessman involved in the fish industry in the U.S., realized the potential value of the gene transfer technology.

The three, along with another colleague, became founding members of the company now known as AquaBounty Technologies, which began seeking FDA approval for the salmon more than 25 years ago.

Dr. Fletcher worked with AquaBounty for approximately 10 years, supervising much of the research required by FDA for regulatory review.

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