AquAdvantage salmon

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AquAdvantage salmon is a genetically modified (GM) Atlantic salmon developed by AquaBounty Technologies. A growth hormone-regulating gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon, with a promoter from an ocean pout, was added to the Atlantic salmon's 40,000 genes. This gene enables it to grow year-round instead of only during spring and summer. The purpose of the modifications is to increase the speed at which the fish grows without affecting its ultimate size or other qualities. The fish grows to market size in 16 to 18 months rather than three years.[1] The latter figure refers to varieties whose growth rate has already been improved by 2:1 as a result of traditional selective breeding. Conventional salmon growers publicly challenged the claimed growth rates.[2] Transgenic salmon are an alternative to wild salmon, and are a sustainable food source (Coll, 2008; Meissa, Gascuel, 2015). The AquaBountry’s AquAdvantage was created in 1989 by injecting Atlantic salmon, (Salmo salar) with a gene consisting of growth hormone cDNA from Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) that is regulated with promoter sequences that acts as an antifreeze protein from an Ocean Pout (Zoarces americanus) (Tillmann, 2016, Bondar, 2010). The protein sequence comparison of a Chinook and Atlantic Salmon show 95% (198/210) of the amino acids are identical, 98% (205/210) of the amino acids are similar and 0% gaps (Bodnar, 2010). A nucleotide BLAST comparison of the Chinook and Atlantic Salmon growth hormone from the Ocean Pout found 90% (1013/1126) of the nucleotides were identical and only 6% gaps (70/1126) (Bodnar, 2010). The stability of the new DNA construct was tested vigorously revealing no evidence of mutational effects during insertion (Bondar, 2010). The new animal was backcrossed (two generation breeding protocol that starts by generating a hybrid offspring between two inbred strains, one of them carrying the mutation of interest) to wild-type Atlantic salmon, and the EO-1ɑ gene sequence was identical in the second through fourth generations, indicating that the insertion is stable (Bodnar, 2010) and a safe GE Salmon was created.

Genetic modification[edit]

AquAdvantage salmon are triploid (having three sets of chromosomes whereas most animals have two sets) female Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), with a single copy of the opAFP-GHc2 construct, which codes for a promoter sequence from ocean pout directing production of a growth hormone protein using coding sequence from Chinook salmon.[3]:vii, 8 This transgene allows the fish to achieve accelerated growth rates.[4] Induction of triploidy in nearly 99% of the salmon by treatment of batches of eggs renders most of the fish sterile, reducing the risk of interbreeding with wild-type fish and further increasing growth by removing the stress of reproduction.[5] Despite the public perception surrounding animal biotechnology being a futuristic science, the ability to generate transgenic animals has existed for over 30 years (Tizard et al., 2016). Precision breeding (Laible, Wei, Wagner, 2014) and other new technologies have allowed the development of transgenic animals to produce the desired traits without transgenes, which is much more precise and valuable than older technologies (Tizard et- al, 2016; Laible, Wei, Wagner, 2014). Utilizing biotechnologies can encourage more sustainable practices in the realm of food security because biotechnologies has the potential to face increased production in a growing population (Tizard et- al, 2016), enhancing nutrition for human health (Gottlieb, Wheeler, 2011), mitigates environmental impacts, and increases animal welfare through improved diseases resistance (Gottlieb, Wheeler, 2011). These benefits of genetically engineered animals have the potential to provide significant advantages contributing to a greater level of sustainability within demanding pressures. The rising demand for animal food products has not been met with conventional practices, nor can the environment withstand the current degradation of various ecosystems and extraction of resources (Rosalind et- al, 2017, Sahar et- al, 2014). Subsequently, there is an impending need to implement innovative and safe technologies, such as, bioengineered animals, combined with new methods like gene editing and precision breeding (Laible, Wei, Wagner, 2014), yet the backlash and criticism against these technologies is considerable. Biotechnology can make a substantial impact in many areas including human health (Tizard, et- al. 2016), as well as reduced environmental impacts, improved animal welfare, and food security (Gottlieb, Wheeler, 2011). Regarding human health, livestock animal products are a vital source of proteins and vitamins for humans (Washington Department of Health) yet often pose threats in the form of allergies and intolerance to certain foods in an increasing portions of the population (Tizard, et- al. 2016). Conventional livestock breeding does not account for these allergens and is unlikely to be safe for all consumers, whereas biotechnologies have allowed for animals to have increased nutritional value, and account for unfavorably high ratios of n-6 and n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) in modern human diets (Tizard et- al. 2016). Some livestock animals are unable to convert n-6 in n-3 PUFAs, but they have been genetically engineered to generate a different enzyme which results in healthy, decreased n-6 and n-3 ratios in meat and milk of pigs, sheep, cattle, and fish (Lai et al. 2006; Pan et al. 2010; Pang et al. 2014). Progress in bioengineering has also strived to improve characteristics of milk (Van Berkel et al. 2002) specifically improving the antimicrobial and immunomodulatory properties of cow’s and goat’s milk (Maga et al. 2006).


AquAdvantage built a 100-ton/year aquaculture facility in landlocked highlands in Panama, a fraction of the 1.6 million ton/year[6] global output of farmed Atlantic salmon. The company promoted its product as a way to re-establish a domestic U.S. salmon industry in place of imported aquaculture fish from Chile and Norway, reducing transportation costs and carbon footprint.[7]


Commercial aquaculture is the most rapidly growing segment of the agricultural industry, accounting for more than 60 million tons in 2012, versus 90 million tons of wild-caught fish. That year, aquaculture output exceeded beef output for the first time. While land-based agriculture is increasing between 2% and 3% per year, aquaculture has been growing at an average rate around 9% per year since 1970. As of 2011, salmon aquaculture produced 1.9 million tons of fish.[8] Marine aquaculture is farmed seafood (NOAA, 2017). This food sector plays one of the most vital rolls in food security supplying more than 50% of all seafood produced for human consumption globally, compared to commercial and recreational fisheries (NOAA, 2017). Aquaculture is the fastest growing food-producing sector (GLOBEFISH, 2017) compared to livestock, pig, and poultry production (Animal Production FAO, 2018). With a growing population projected to reach nine billion by 2050 (Worldometers,2017) vital dietary needs must be met; fish are a crucial source of proteins and healthy long-chain omega 3 fats, vitamin D, and Calcium (Washington Department of Health). The production of nutrient-rich fish is vital for food security, so the Global Aquaculture Summit is determined to focus on advancing technologies to increase the efficiency and sustainability of the current global market performance (GLOBEFISH, 2017). Of the aquatic organisms farmed, such as finfishes, crustacea, molluscs, and others, the most important aquaculture operation is of finfish, which includes the Atlantic salmon accounting for 67.8% of the total aquaculture output of aquatic animals (GLOBEFISH, 2017). The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has used the ecosystem approach to aquaculture (EAA) to improve the sustainability of aquaculture development.


Aquaculture that uses conventionally bred salmon, mostly Atlantic salmon, cultivates the fish in net pens. In North America, this occurs mostly in coastal waters off Washington, British Columbia, and Maine. However, the application for FDA approval of AquAdvantage salmon specified land-based tank cultivation with no ocean involvement.[9] To address the concern about biological containment, the FDA does require AquaBounty to take extra precautionary measures to ensure transgenic fish cannot get into wild fish population in the ocean (Fox, 2015). Critics of GE fish and other GE technologies have voiced this concern, suggesting it would be impossible to ensure no GE salmon escape into the open ocean were the engineered fish to be raised in ocean pens (Bruce, 2017). To reduce the chances that transgenic fish breed with wild populations, AquaBounty altered the fish to be entirely female (Jeffery L Fox, 2010) and up to 98.9% triploid (Benfey, 2016) rendering these females sterile. Male fish would more easily reproduced in the event of escape by widely spreading sperm (Muir, 1999). AquAdvantage salmon eggs are treated with pressure, to create batches of fish eggs with three copies of each chromosome (Bodnar, 2010) compared to two copies (diploid). Any batch that contains 5 percent or more diploid fish, is destroyed because these diploid fish are capable of reproducing (Bodnar, 2010). This method of biological containment is an added implication of non-GE aquaculture farms because they are not required to induce triploidy fish (Animal Production FAO, 2018), there are serious ecological and economic implications occur when stock fish escape from ocean-pens into native fish species’ ecosystems (Mapes, 2018). The AquaBounty AquAdvantage triploid fish are also, higher quality meat because they do not divert energy to reproduction, as a diploid fish would, instead use the energy to grow after maturity (Benfey, 2016). AquaBounty takes extra precautionary measures to ensure better security using physical containment to reduce even further any transgenic interbreed with wild Atlantic salmon (Jeffery L Fox, 2010). The AquaBounty transgenic Salmon are only allowed to be raise in two land-bases tanks at two sites in Canada and Panama (Tizard et al., 2016). The fact that AquaBounty fish eggs will be produced in a land-based fresh-water research facility on Prince Edward Island in Canada, makes the cases that these AquaBounty salmon, are still salmon, and salmon hatch and develop in freshwater then swim to salt water to spawn when they reach adulthood (B. Josson, N. Jonsson,1993) so if eggs were to escape this facticity, they would be unable to survive in the high salinity water nearby (Bondar, 2010). These eggs are then shipped to a land-based aquaculture facility at high altitude in Panama near a river that drains into the Pacific Ocean (Bondar, 2010), the facility is thousands of miles (120 km) away from the nearest Atlantic Salmon wild populations (Gallegos, 2017; Upton, Cowan, 2015). It is here, the eggs hatch and grow to market size (B. Josson, N. Jonsson,1993). Most of the water in the drainage river into the ocean is unsuitable for salmon to survive, and is constricted by dams that act as barriers (Bondar, 2010). It is extremely unlikely that one of the 1.2 percent diploid fish (Benfey, 2016), would successfully navigate the dam barriers and survive the lethal waters and reach the Pacific Ocean, thousands of miles away (Gallegos, 2017; Upton, Cowan, 2015). Other concerns include the heath effects of consumers due to the potentially heightened allergenicity of the GE fish and the potential effects of the hormone levels in the fish (Jeffery L Fox, 2010). However, there are no newly introduced proteins, fats, or any component different from salmon that has not been engineered (Børresen,2016). The FDA has upheld that people with allergies to Atlantic Salmon will likely be allergic to AquAdvantage Salmon due to the similar species properties, not because it is genetically engineered (FDA) and that AquAdvantage Salmon is as safe to eat as non-GE salmon because there are no significant food safety hazards associated with it (FDA, 2012). Other human health concerns arise about the increase hormone content in the edible tissue of transgenic fish (Green, 2016), the growth hormone content in two groups- AquAdvantage salmon and non-GE control- are both below the lower limit of observed quantities, and there was no significant difference in the amount of amounts of estradiol, testosterone, 17- ketotestosterone, T3, and T4 between the two groups (Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee, 2010). The AquAdvantage salmon showed statistical difference in the concentration of an insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1) (Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee, 2010)., yet the amount of (IGF-1) found in AquAdvantage salmon is similar to, or lower than, other amount found in other common animal products- cow’s treated with growth hormones milk, cow’s not treated with growth hormones milk, organic cow milk, beef and cattle blood per milliliter (Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine Veterinary Medicine Advisory Committee, 2010). An average adult male that consumes 81.7 g of animal protein intakes 200 ng of IGF-1 per mL of blood, consuming regular amounts of AquAdvantage salmon imposes no greater IGF-1 content than an average animal containing diet (Giovannucci, et-al, 2003). The only notable difference between transgenic Atlantic salmon and the wild type is therefore the growth rate, with GM salmon reaching market size in half the time as conventional salmon (Børresen, 2016; Hafsa, 2016; Waltz 2016).

Critics raised concerns about potential environmental impacts if these fish reached rivers or oceans. Modeled invasion scenarios in semi-natural environments suggest that GM salmon would outcompete wild-type salmon.[10][11][12][13] However, William Muir, the researcher who developed the "Trojan gene" hypothesis frequently cited by critics of this salmon, has discounted this scenario, noting their "sin of omission" and describing it as an "urban myth".[14] His analysis indicates that "the data conclusively shows that there is no Trojan Gene effect as expected. The data in fact suggest that the transgene will be purged by natural selection. In other words the risk of harm here is low.”[14]

Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Aldi, and other grocery stores throughout the United States have announced that they would not offer AquAdvantage.[15]

Wild-type Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar).
Wild-type Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar)

Survival in new habitats[edit]

Fish can learn to feed on new prey after leaving hatchery environments. These adaptations could pose a risk if GM salmon were to be released into the wild.[16]

The ability of GM salmon to grow faster does not necessarily mean they are preferentially preyed upon, and this leads to increased survival.[vague] In a competition scenario, such as a release of GM fish from a salmon farm into the wild, the GM salmon could initially outcompete wild-type salmon for food.[citation needed] This success would allow the GM salmon's greater survival.[10][16]

Rate of growth[edit]

AquAdvantage salmon have the potential to feed more efficiently than wild-type salmon. This leads to an accelerated growth rate during their first year after hatching. These fish have the capability to grow 11 times faster than wild-type salmon. This characteristic allows GM salmon to mature more rapidly and gives them the ability to reproduce in less than two years (about 700 days).[17][10] However, studies suggest this accelerated maturity of GM salmon does not provide a reproduction advantage over wild-type.[17]


Smoltification is the process of salmon adapting from freshwater to marine water. GM salmon can potentially achieve smolt size in only one year. This could allow AquAdvantage fish to reach the ocean quicker. The ability to reach the ocean first could allow GM salmon to access more food with less competition from wild-type salmon.[11]


Fish are one of the eight food types that the FDA is required by law to treat with special care, with regard to allergies.[3]:97 As part of the regulatory process, the FDA required data on whether changes occur in the kinds or levels of fish allergens (such as parvalbumin) in AquAdvantage. The FDA reviewed data from the company and concluded, "The allergenic potency of triploid ABT salmon was not significantly different from that of sponsor control diploid salmon."[3]:104

Swimming capabilities[edit]

AquAdvantage salmon lack in swimming capabilities compared to wild-type salmon.[17][11][12][18] AquAdvantage individuals consume more energy when swimming than wild-type salmon. This is most likely due to the type of muscle fibers. AquAdvantage fish's muscle fibers have a smaller diameter than wild-type salmon. Because the force a muscle generates is proportional to its diameter, the smaller muscle diameter of AquAdvantage salmon produces less force than the wild-type.[18]

Reproductive competition[edit]

Under simulated models, both precocial parr and anadromous GM male salmon lack reproductive success and have a reduced number of surviving offspring. GM salmon's lack of fertilization success can be attributed to nest fidelity, quivering frequency, and spawn participation.[11] Under simulated competition environments, 94% of siring occurred by wild-type salmon, while only 5.4% was attributed to GM salmon.[17] This advantage allows more than twice as many wild-type offspring to be produced.[17] Other characteristics that could cause wild-type males to be chosen more frequently could be the lack of growth of the kype, the hooked jaw of a male, and red coloration on anadromous males, which demonstrates sexual maturity to females.

Using in vitro analysis, GM salmon's ejaculate was much less concentrated and had a lower sperm count and decreased sperm velocity, all of which can decrease GM salmon's fertilization success.[17]


AquaBounty addresses these concerns by cultivating reproductively incapable females. Most escapees cannot reproduce either natively or by interbreeding with wild stocks, because treatments of eggs have been found to render 98.9% of them triploid; batches with more than 5% diploid individuals will be destroyed.[5][19] The company plans to provide farmers with fish rather than eggs,[1] and has proposed that AquAdvantage fish only be raised in land-based facilities.[20]

Government regulation[edit]

United States[edit]

In September 2010, an FDA advisory panel indicated that the fish is "highly unlikely to cause any significant effects on the environment" and that it is "as safe as food from conventional Atlantic salmon"[3][21] Kathleen Jones of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine said:

In conclusion, all of the data and information we reviewed ... really drive us to the conclusion that AquAdvantage salmon is Atlantic salmon, and food from AquAdvantage salmon is as safe as food from other Atlantic salmon.[22]

In October 2010, 39 lawmakers asked the FDA to reject the application. Other groups requested that the fish carry a label identifying its transgenic origin.[21] Concerns included alleged flaws in sterilization and isolation, and excessive antibiotic use.[23] In 2012, the major shareholder of AquaBounty Technologies said that he doubted that approval would be granted for the AquAdvantage salmon in a US election year.[24]

On 25 December 2012, the FDA published a draft environmental assessment for AquAdvantage salmon.[4] The FDA also published a preliminary Finding of No Significant Impact.[25] A 60-day period for the public to comment was to elapse before the FDA reviewed Aquadvantage salmon again, which was arbitrarily extended until May 2013.[26][27] As of May 2013, the public comment period officially ended, and the FDA was then scheduled to finalize its assessment.[15]

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved AquaBounty Technologies' application to sell the AquAdvantage salmon to U.S. consumers on November 19, 2015.[28] However, a rider to a spending bill signed into law on December 18, 2015 by President Obama bans its import until the FDA mandates labels for the genetically modified product.[29][30] The decision marks the first time a genetically modified animal has been approved to enter the United States food supply. The decision came nearly twenty years after the company first submitted data to the FDA, and after they had raised ten generations of the animals. [23] The announcement released by the FDA states: "AquAdvantage salmon is as safe to eat as any non-genetically engineered (GE) Atlantic salmon, and also as nutritious." [31][32] One month later, language was introduced into a proposed federal spending bill requiring consumer notification that the fish is genetically modified.[33]


On 25 November 2013, Environment Canada approved the product for salmon egg production for commercial purposes in Canada.[34]

In May 2016, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency approved the sale of the GM fish.[35] In July 2017, AquaBounty Technologies said they had sold 4.5 tons of AquaAdvantage salmon fillets to customers in Canada.[36][37]


  1. ^ a b Blumenthal 2010
  2. ^ Salmobreed 2011.
  3. ^ a b c d FDA 2010.
  4. ^ a b FDA & December 2012.
  5. ^ a b Anastasia Bodnar (October 2010). "Risk Assessment and Mitigation of AquAdvantage Salmon" (PDF). ISB News Report.
  6. ^ "Learn More About Farmed Salmon and the Salmon Farming Industry". 9 August 2013.
  7. ^ "FDA Considers Genetically Engineered Salmon". 21 September 2010.
  8. ^ FAO 2012, p. 21.
  9. ^ von Mogel, Karl Haro (24 April 2013). "Interview with Ron Stotish at BIO".
  10. ^ a b c Sundström & Devlin 2010, pp. 447–460.
  11. ^ a b c d Moreau, Conway & Fleming 2011, pp. 736–748.
  12. ^ a b Hu & Zhu 2010, pp. 401–408.
  13. ^ Ahrens & Devlin 2010, pp. 583–597.
  14. ^ a b Zajac, Andy (November 26, 2010). "Foes of GE salmon raise specter of 'Trojan gene' effect". Los Angeles Times.
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  19. ^ Ron 2010
  20. ^ "Is Genetically Modified Salmon Safe?". Discovery News. February 11, 2013. Retrieved 2013-05-08.
  21. ^ a b Mundy & Tomson 2010
  22. ^ Carollo 2010
  23. ^ a b Naik 2010.
  24. ^ Pollack 2012.
  25. ^ FDA & May 2012.
  26. ^ Federal Register 2012.
  27. ^ Reardon 2012.
  29. ^ Dennis, Brady (29 January 2016). "FDA bans imports of genetically engineered salmon — for now". Washington Post. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  30. ^ FDA. FDA Import Alert 99-40 "GENETICALLY ENGINEERED (GE) SALMON" (01/29/2016).
  31. ^ FDA. "FDA Has Determined That the AquAdvantage Salmon is as Safe to Eat as Non-GE Salmon". Retrieved 19 November 2015.
  32. ^ Steenhuysen, Julie; Polansek, Tom (19 November 2015). "U.S. clears genetically modified salmon for human consumption". Reuters. Retrieved 9 April 2016.
  33. ^ Dennis, Brady (17 December 2015). "FDA must develop plan to label genetically engineered salmon, Congress says". The Washington Post. The Washington Post. Retrieved 6 April 2016.
  35. ^ "Canada Approves Sale of Genetically Modified Salmon".
  36. ^ Coghlan, Andy (2017-08-08). "Genetically engineered salmon goes on sale for the first time". New Scientist. Retrieved 2017-08-08.
  37. ^ Waltz,Nature, Emily. "First Genetically Engineered Salmon Sold in Canada". Scientific American. Retrieved 2017-08-08.


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