Would you buy cloned, lab-grown fish?

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Does the thought of stocking your aquarium with cloned, manufactured fish fill you with horror? Like it or not, chances are they're on the way, says Nathan Hill.

This week we saw a breakthrough, and frankly a major one. Scientists managed to create from stem cells, nutrient slush and a little electricity, enough meat fibres to put together the world’s most expensive burger.

The media and public reaction to this breakthrough has shown just how complacent the world is becoming. Rather than 'wow!' it seemed that the most prevalent response was 'meh'. Perhaps we prefer our science to have more car chases and explosions, because this was most certainly met with a flat response.

Either way, what this exercise represents is not just that we can look forward to an age of Frankenburgers where on-the-cusp vegans can indulge in some sinless meat (would a synth-meat eater be able to call themselves a vegan still?), but that the ability to commercially create tissue and potentially even full organisms from a handful of cells comes one step closer to becoming reality.

Of course, we’re still a long way off from taking a couple of cells and growing them into a fully fledged fish; alive, active and well. But then, 30 years back we were a long way off from growing a burger in a dish. Who can say exactly what the next few decades will bring?

So what can we in the fishkeeping world hope for? Well, personally, I’d like to think that we could expect a lot. Maybe even everything. Handled well, growing fish in petri dishes could be one of the best things to happen to wild stocks and sustainability — assuming that things can eventually become cost effective. The first burger effort cost around £250,000. Ethical as I want to be, I can’t afford to pay that for a guppy.

Alas, such antics are synonymous for many with cloning technology. This, in turn, is viewed by mainstream media as dangerous but only because whenever it comes up they choose to draft in a fleet of spurious experts, whose sole source of information seems to be sci-fi books and films. These experts then peddle out the worst kind of doomsday scenarios, where London gets attacked by herd of 30-metre tall, metal teethed hypercows, and they assure us that the only safe way to live harmoniously in the future is to tear down our houses, strip off our clothes and return to the savannah.

Saying that, cloned fish aren’t even new. It happened for the first time back in '63, and since then it has become rife in the scientific community. Cloned Danio rerio make up a whopping proportion of the fish used in research, and the world hasn’t crashed on the back of those yet. Behind closed doors, cells are nudged into other cells to create an army of test subjects, all genetically equal. What a great way to rule out variables in experiments. Sort of like the Clones in Star Wars, but without the fighting or fruity armour. And with fish.

And to digress slightly, any debate about cloning goes hand in hand with that other aspect of organic creation — genetic modification. We can all understand that fiddling about with a fish’s genes is dangerous if handled badly. Or at least, it has the potential to produce dangerous results. I’m not going to deny that for an instant.

Every time I see a story about another Salmonid that has been engineered to race to adult size inside of two weeks, out eating, out growing and out breeding everything else in sight, I find myself with an inner sense of demise. There’s something about a gigantic, hungry bundle of sexual tension that I don’t think belongs in the rivers…

However, I’m not taking the stance, so frequently espoused by my acquaintances, that all GM is wrong. That’s another media hysteria that’s often poorly researched, with erroneous conclusions spat out at us. In many areas, modifying of an organism can potentially make a huge difference to its wellbeing at no discernible cost or risk.

Just look at the thinking behind the now defunct FishTomato, where the antifreeze gene from the Winter flounder was taken and placed inside our favourite salad fruit. The gene doesn’t act to make the tomato any fishier than it was, but does increase the potential to resist the damage brought about by ice.

In fact, there’s all manner of potentially beneficial things that have been tweaked in the tomato, including the addition of vitamins, and even the possibility of carrying disease vaccines. And then there are the other crops, with in-built defence from typical problems and disease that would blight them. Sorry hysterical Greens, but we’re not meeting eye to eye on this one. GM might not currently be perfect, but to me it’s preferable to the starvation of millions.

But back on track to our fish, and back to lab made, artificially raised clones. The way I see it, there are two ways that in vitro rearing in general could go within the trade. One appeals to me, the other makes me shudder.

The appealing path is an absolute no brainer. Given adequate lab production, we could run the ‘lab grown’ aspect of the hobby at a drastically reduced environmental impact. Firstly, we’d not be using up as many resources as are currently used in farming practices. Without a need to keep vast aggregations of adult breeding fish to turn out young, we could feasibly reduce the fuel and food costs involved in producing fry.  After all, we only need to feed the fry, but by logical extension not their parents. Because there wouldn’t be any. The maths are pretty straightforward.

And with no wild collections required, we’d simply need to get hold of a fertile egg, whip out the stem cells and then we’ve got a lifetime supply of that species. Denison barbs and other high risk fish no longer become a worry (at least, not from an aquarium collection perspective), and if the lab growing technology could pump them out cheap enough, very few people would be interested in buying the endangered, wild caught individuals any more.

That also opens up a world of rare fish for all. It would be a lot easier to convince the Brazilian government, for example, that we need a handful of Zebra plec eggs, than a few hundred boxes of the things for export. Stick them in the Frankentubes with some Matrix goo, and blam! Suddenly we all have access.

In fact, technically speaking, if we had cells with the DNA sequence stored, then nothing would ever really be extinct. In limbo, maybe, but not actually extinct. That’s not some loose green light to rampant eco-destruction, which needs to be thwarted to my mind, but it does at least offer a glimmer of longer-term hope for some species. Even after years without a habitat, a fish could have its cells raised in vitro, fed on delicious slurry, and made back into the original.

But the other way that lab creations could go scares the life out of me, and designer cloning is one ethical quagmire that I’ll never fully get my head around.

Physically altered fish generate mixed responses. From myself, and for many others like me, they are abhorrent. I hold a reserved grimace for the likes of many line-bred variants, and yes, for me personally, that does include many Fancy goldfish strains. They’re an indefatigable, deeply embedded aspect of the hobby, and they feature in the mag because of this, but I’m still wary.

We know that altered fish are popular. Just look over at the states where they don’t just tolerate things like Flowerhorns or Glofish, but positively embrace them. Not everyone, of course, but apparently at a far higher ratio than occurs in Europe. As for China, just wow. Give a creature 19 heads, a pig’s tail and make it scream like a howler monkey, and the mass market will probably buy it. Such is the nature of how different cultures view genetic manipulation.

We’ve already got enough beasts, but with a collusion of lab growth, cloning and GM, pretty much anything can be made, and that is of some concern. But even here it cuts both ways. As much as the designers may decide to go in for everyday fish that are resilient to whitespot, or don’t develop tumours, it could easily be preposterously long fins (not that we don’t have those already) or twisted chimeras of things that take their fancy. Given people’s propensity to throw money at fads, I’m confident I know which would be more commercially viable for the cloner.

What’s more, with a little extra tweaking, things could get really messed up. I could grizzle and gripe that a fish be created so malformed that it must be living a life of hell, only to get a response along the lines of 'it’s okay, we turned off the genes responsible for feeling pain. It enjoys being like that…'

I’m not going to explore what such responses entail, as it is a massive discussion in its own right. The famous, late writer Douglas Adams once touched on something similar when he explored the concept of a breed of cow that wanted to be eaten. That was over 30 years ago, and people are still haranguing over the ethics of it now.

It’s also worth considering the potential for everyone to own a world-class fish. Why shouldn’t the owner of a prize winning, £1000 Arowana be able to make a few extra pennies by selling off lab-grown clones of his fish? From a breeder’s perspective, there wouldn’t be less incentive to produce pristine offspring, there’d be more.

Where a current breeder can only process so many young at a time, with cloning and in vitro technology in tow, all he or she need do is take the genetic material of their prize fish and offer it to the global audience. The skilled breeder would suddenly have the capability of making massive financial returns from a single, 'perfect' fish, which could be the market leader right up until it was trumped by another.

Though that is a tad optimistic. Cloning, contrary to popular belief, will not create a perfect, carbon copy of the original. There are many differences that follow, caused by a variety of factors, not least of which are environment. For those concerned at a bland industry heaving with identical facsimile fish, think again.

But would there even be a market for cloned, lab-grown fish in the UK? A lot of the aquarists I know are very much purists. Part of the appeal of owning a fish from some hitherto unseen Colombian puddle is its very obscurity, the exotic nature of its origins. Some aquarists thrive on being different, having something that nobody else has got. No, wild collection would still be alive and well, I think, with people opting to pay more for the ‘original’ of a species than a synthetic, though genetically identical, replication.

I suspect that some would somehow muster up an argument from nature, too. Why it is that we as a society consider ‘natural’ things to be so virtuous is beyond me, when every pinnacle of human development has generally been despite, or a reaction to, nature. However, for some, the concept that nature=good and cultured=bad will be a difficult one to overcome. Many people will want to decry lab fish as execrable, without even looking at the arguments in their favour. Such people cannot be won over.

Personally, I would buy laboratory-grown clones, and would have no issues with that. And I think for the vast majority, the fish’s background would have little to do with it. I think that ultimately, it would come down to price, like so much in life. If an artificially derived Neon costs 50-pence, while a farmed or wild caught costs £2, I’ll wager that many people’s deep set fear of all things synthetically-made would fizzle away like Alka-Seltzer in an Amazonian tank.

And like it or not, cloned, manufactured fish for all will likely be on the way. Perhaps we in the UK will take the same stance as GM fish, and not allow them into the country. Maybe none of us will get to see a retailed synthetic clone in our lives. A lot of people would be happy with that, but I’m not one of them. If it reduces the number of fish being hauled out of rivers and ponds, then I’d happily embrace lab growing with very open arms.

Either way, I’d appreciate your thoughts on the subject. I know that it’s huge, complex and lacking in any real moral benchmarks by which we can decide against, but I also know that it’s drizzled with misconceptions and terror of the unknown. Let me know, and I’ll read your comments when I get back. For now I need to head to London to help fight some 30-metre tall, metal teethed hypercows.

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