It only takes one fish to wipe out a population

A SINGLE genetically modified fish could turn Darwinian evolution upside down and wipe out local populations of the species if released into the wild, biologists warn. They add that other organisms could face the same risk from transgenic relatives.

William Muir and Richard Howard of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, made the discovery while modelling ecological risks associated with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). They have dubbed their idea the "Trojan gene" hypothesis. "This resembles the Trojan horse," says Muir. "It gets into the population looking like something good and it ends up destroying the population."

The researchers studied fish carrying the human growth hormone gene hGH, which increases growth rate and final size. Biologists in the US and Britain are experimenting with salmon engineered in a similar way, although no one has yet begun commercial production.

Muir and Howard included hGH in embryos of a fish called the Japanese medaka (Oryzias latipes), a common aquarium fish that is widely used in research. They found that modified individuals became sexually mature faster than normal fish and produced more eggs.

Other experiments using non-modified fish also showed that larger males attracted four times as many mates as their smaller rivals. This effect is also known in salmon. Muir predicts that bigger, engineered fish would enjoy the same advantages. So the hGH gene would quickly spread through a fish population.

But Muir and Howard also found that only two-thirds of engineered medaka survived to reproductive age compared with wild medakas. So the spread of the growth hormone gene could make populations dwindle and eventually become extinct.

To quantify this, the researchers plugged their results into a computer model to find out what would happen if 60 transgenic individuals joined a wild population of 60 000 fish. The population became extinct within just 40 generations. Even a single trans

Contact: Claire Bowles
New Scientist

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