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The First Genetically Engineered Pet

written by: Jason C. Chavis•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 12/3/2009

After being developed during the late 1990s, the GloFish became the first publicly available genetically engineered pet in the United States. Although facing challenges from regulators and organizations, the fish has become a staple of the ornamental fish market.

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    Genetic Engineering in Animals

    The first genetically modified organism to be made available as a pet was the GloFish. The GloFish was essentially a zebrafish that had been modified with bright red, green and orange fluorescent colors. Like other genetically modified organisms, the GloFish was merely an experiment, but it soon grew to prominence on the ornamental fish market.

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    GloFish Development

    E487BB7536D87C41DC1D833F87C4B85C5748CA14 large Zebrafish are native to rivers in India and Bangladesh. They measure approximately three centimeters long and feature gold and dark blue stripes. 200 million different fish have been sold in the United States since they were first introduced to the ornamental fish market in the 1960s. However, natural zebrafish have troubles breeding in the United States due to the fact that they are tropical fish. This means they cannot survive in the wild, either. These facts played heavily into the questions regarding the pros and cons of genetic engineering of ornamental fish.

    While working at the National University of Singapore in the late 1990s, Dr. Zhiyuan Gong and his associates extracted a protein from a jellyfish and inserted the gene into the zebrafish genome. The zebrafish was chosen due to its relatively easily-manipulated genetic configuration.

    The purpose of this experiment was to produce a fish that could be used to detect pollutants and environmental toxins. The development of a fluorescent fish needed to be completed first in order to continue the experiment. The fish would fluoresce in the presence of toxins. Gong and his team continued working with the zebrafish, developing a red and yellow version using genes from sea coral.

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    Marketing and Regulation

    Soon, two businessmen from Austin, Texas signed a deal with the researcher to obtain worldwide rights to market the fish. Dubbed the GloFish, Yorktown Technologies introduced the fish into the U.S. market for the price of $18.60 on February 3, 2002. Before they could sell the product, the company was forced to complete a variety of risk assessment reports on the safety of the tropical fish. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration found that since tropical aquarium fish are not used for food purposes, the GloFish posed no threat to the food supply. Yorktown Technologies was issued a license to market the fish.

    Other organizations have also completed studies to address the pros and cons of genetic engineering. The California Department of Fish and Game and the Florida Transgenic Aquatic Task Force determined that the GloFish posed no threat to their states and should be allowed to be sold. A non-government organization called the Center for Food Safety, however, launched a lawsuit against both Yorktown Technologies and the FDA, claiming the department had no jurisdiction in deciding if the GloFish is safe to be sold in the U.S. The lawsuit regarding genetically modified organisms was dismissed on March 30, 2005.

    Further development over the following years also addressed the pros and cons of genetic engineering. Purely ethical questions regarding the manipulation of species for sale as pets have been addressed. As well as the long-term safety and cross-breeding potential of the zebrafish.

    Yorktown Technologies continued to sell the GloFish, introducing new product lines including an orange version. This was met with skepticism by many governments, however. The European Union has outright banned the sale of genetically modified organisms within its member countries. The State of California has used its Environmental Quality Act to halt the sale of GloFish. Canada, too, has joined the growing audience of countries and states that ban the sale of the fish.

    The GloFish is one of the most widely sold fish in the United States and much of Asia. Thus far in terms of its safety as a pet, the GloFish has not been shown to have any negative effects.

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    Image Source

    GloFish in aquarium. (Image credit: Hoffmottom: 0.21cm eier at Wikimedia Commons,, public domain.)