Are Glofish an Ethical Violation?

Scientists at the National University of Singapore began experimenting with a curious green fluorescent protein and zebra fish in 1999.  Four years later, the patented Glofish hit the market. Although the initial study hoped to produce a fish that would serve as an indicator, glowing in the presence of environmental pollutants, what came of it was something unexpected: the first genetically modified pet.

Recently, the seemingly harmless Glofish have come under fire.  Several years after the initial zebra Glofish were engineered, Yorktown Technology created the Electric Green Tetra.  These particular fish were made to fluoresce using a gene from coral.  Environmental safety advocates worry that should these fish find their way into the wild, they would become a disruptive invasive species, outcompeting other fish.  The Center for Food Safety even sued the Food and Drug Administration for not creating enough regulations concerning the Glofish. Currently, genetically modified fish are outlawed in Canada, California, and Europe.

A satirical website has even been created, called Glowing Sushi.  The website humorously details preparation methods of glowing sushi.

Many seem to be averse to the idea of Glofish. This is understandable, as genetic engineering has long been a subject of controversy.  Proponents cite harmlessness and potential benefits such as increased food supply or health advantages (like less fat in meat products).  Critics assert that it is simply unnatural and may have negative effects on ecosystems and food chains.

With Glofish, however, it seems that little is at stake.  In one study, Glofish were shown not to have a mating advantage and had higher mortality rates than non-GM zebrafish in adverse conditions.  Another scientist contends that the Glofish simply would not be able to survive in a wild environment.  I feel that it is not my place to make an ethics call, but it appears that Glofish at least do not pose a threat to the environment.

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3 thoughts on “Are Glofish an Ethical Violation?

  1. There is something disrespectful about engineering a species to look decorative, as if animals were nothing but decoraction… it just doesn’t feel right.

    However, it does seem irrational that if you bio-engineer a species to be decorative and it does not suffer any health distortions as a result, and it does not disrupt the environment (supposedly), then it is still unethical anyway just because it is bio-engineered.

    Whereas if you breed species to be decorative in the slow old fashioned way by systematically selecting individuals with unnatural “distinct” looks and even inbreed to enhance those features, and you end up with a huge population of genetically distorted animals with a myriad of chronical health issues, then that is not an ethical problem, because it was just animals procreating as animals do.

    (I am of course referring to pedigree dog breeding if there is any doubt, and especially the most deform breeds such as English Bulldog, Pugs, Chow-Chow, Bull Terrier, Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Basset Hound… the long list of severely deform dog breeds goes on and on)

    • Thanks for commenting! While I do agree with you that it doesn’t really make sense to brand something as unethical if nothing negative comes of it and that engineering a species to enhance its appearance feels wrong, I think that breeding for desired traits is unethical when it causes health problems in the animals because it is not just animals procreating as they do. The breeding pairs are unnatural, as they were selected by humans. Therefore, the offspring would have been much better off had humans not become involved.

      • I agree with you. My remark about dog breeds was ironic in that regard … I strongly disagree that it is not unethical what has been done and is being done to most dog breeds (haphazard reduction of genetic diversity & health for cosmetic reasons).

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