To celebrate the anniversary of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s approval of our AquAdvantage Salmon for commercial production and consumption, we are posting a series of articles that have appeared over the past year. The following article discusses the work of Eric Hallerman, PhD and his recommendations to the FDA regarding our salmon.
When federal regulators declared the AquAdvantage salmon fit to eat last fall, it became the world’s first genetically engineered animal to be approved for human consumption. Eric Hallerman, professor of fish conservation in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, advised the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on the environmental issues surrounding transgenic Atlantic salmon as part of the agency’s investigation.
“The FDA is respected globally,” said Hallerman, who is an affiliate of Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Science Institute. “Now that the U.S. has approved an animal for food, other countries might follow.”
To create the AquAdvantage salmon, scientists at AquaBounty Technologies in Maynard, Massachusetts, transferred a growth-hormone gene from the largest species of Pacific salmon, the Chinook, and a genetic on-off switch from a different species, the ocean pout, that triggers expression of the gene year-round. Conventional Atlantic salmon produce growth hormone only in the summer, but the AquAdvantage fish responds to the growth hormone and eats heavily all year. Although the mature AquAdvantage salmon grows no bigger than its wild cousins, it reaches full size twice as fast.
AquaBounty asked Hallerman — who is not otherwise affiliated with the company — to lead research on the fish’s environmental impact. Hallerman had pushed for a better framework for risk assessment and management in genetic engineering since the late 1980s. As a postdoctoral associate at the University of Minnesota, he published several papers with his supervisor Anne Kapuscinski, now a professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth, on the ecological ramifications of farming transgenic fish. In the early 1990s, Hallerman helped develop the performance standards the U.S. Department of Agriculture uses to evaluate the safety of aquatic genetic engineering projects.
Hallerman and his co-investigators discovered that AquAdvantage fish could potentially breed in the wild, passing down their engineered genes. So AquaBounty developed a system of redundant safeguards to confine their salmon. The company grows only sterile females and raises them in aboveground tanks in Panama. If these cold-water fish escaped, they would probably die in the warm, muddy rivers downstream from the facility, 4,000 miles from their spawning grounds along the North Atlantic.
The FDA invited Hallerman to present his findings in September 2010. “At the hearing, I was asked flat-out, ‘Would you approve this?’ I said yes,” Hallerman recalled. “That recommendation sat around for five years.” Read the article.