Hi-tech neon 'GloFish' could threaten natural species

Back in 2003, biotech company Yorktown Technologies developed a genetically modified fluorescent fish that was neon-bright and glowed in the dark under black light. Since that time, the company has sold millions of these "GloFish," which have made their way into various living room aquariums and sushi bars. But now it appears that they may be ending up somewhere else — namely our oceans, lakes, and rivers. And needless to say, a number of scientists are saying this is not a good thing.

The concern is with one of the GloFish in particular, the Electric Green Tetra. It's a modified black tetra fish capable of living in freshwater. But as Adrianne Appel of the Washington Post reports, this one is not like the others:

The two GloFish are very different, however, in what environmentalists and some experts say is a crucial way: The heat-loving zebra fish is from southern Asia and can't survive long in cooler U.S. waters; thus, the Food and Drug Administration has ruled that there would be little threat of invasion of U.S. waterways if it were released from home aquariums. But the black tetra is native to South America and likely to be happy making a splash in the inland waterways of South Florida and Latin America.

In South Florida, the modified black tetras could upset an environment already burdened with 30 types of nonnative fish. In South America, they could mean an undesirable interference in natural biodiversity.

"My worry is that they'll be such a novelty that they will be imported back to [South America] and kids will let them go and they'll start interbreeding with fish whose genomes are very similar,'' said Barry Chernoff, a freshwater fish biologist and chair of the environmental studies program at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. "We would see the spreading of the fluorescent coral gene in the native fish.''

At the same time, though, the neon GloFish may actually be a rather poor adaptation. A 2011 study by Jeffrey Hill found that largemouth bass and mosquito fish in Florida ate twice as many red GloFish as regular zebra fish when they were all put in tanks together.

Sometimes in nature, it doesn't pay to stand out.

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Images via GloFish.com.