- They were too busy asking if they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Here’s a science fiction plotline you’ve probably seen a thousand times. Scientists take two animals, mash their genes together, and create some kind of a horrifying hybrid creature that goes on to wreak destruction.
Well, what used to be yesterday’s science fiction is today’s reality. At least the part about combining genes from different animals.
A group of scientists from Auburn University recently published the results of their latest experiment. Their project sure sounds outlandish — they created a catfish-alligator hybrid.
We know, that sounds terrifying. But, fortunately, you won’t have to worry about ravenous fish-reptiles lurking in the waters.
The scientists only implanted one alligator gene into the catfish. But that one gene can make a big difference, at least for the catfish farming industry.
Catfish are notoriously prone to disease and swathes of fish die before they can reach maturity. The alligator gene makes catfish more resistant to illness and can help farmers struggling with fish loss.
So, yeah, you understood that correctly. The researchers intend for you to eat the alligator-catfish hybrids.
Guts and Glory
In the name of honesty, the hybrid fish are not as scary as they might sound. They don’t have alligator teeth or grow to gargantuan sizes — looking at them, you’d never even know there’s anything special about the fish.
But the beauty is once again on the inside. The fish boast a gene from alligators responsible for the production of something called cathelicidin.
To make things simple, cathelicidin is a protein found in the intestines. It has antimicrobial properties and helps organisms fight off diseases.
Catfish, though, don’t have it. Or at least not in the amounts that it’d make a difference.
But with their new alligator gene, the research team’s hybrid fish are able to produce cathelicidin. And the results seem really promising, actually.
“The survival rate of the cathelicidin transgenic fish was between two- and five-fold higher,” the research team’s leader Rex Dunham told MIT Technology Review.
Freaks of nature though they might be, you can’t argue with the results. The hybrid fish resist disease and live longer.
Dead Fish Are a Problem
There’s a real need for longer-living catfish. Natural catfish drop dead very easily, which causes huge losses to fish farmers.
“But why should we care about catfish farmers?” you ask. Well, if you’re American, you probably eat quite a lot of it.
Catfish is among the most widely consumed seafood in the U.S. Domestically, the country produces 307 million pounds of the fish per year, making up 60-70% of all U.S. fish farming.
Yet, fish farmers worldwide lose around 40% of their catfish before they can be harvested. Imagine nearly half of a regular farmer’s crops dying before harvest time and you can start to see the problem.
And it’s not just about lost money. The dead fish will rot, which produces a lot of hazardous waste.
That waste must be disposed of safely, which wastes a lot of resources. So, making the fish more disease resistant just makes sense.
‘I Would Eat It in a Heartbeat’
But, as always, genetic manipulation always raises some questions. Brushing aside the matter of whether it should be done in the first place, there’s another big question.
What if the hybrid catfish got into nature? Since they won’t die as easily as wild catfish, they could entirely replace native catfish populations.
As a result, they might breed so efficiently that they’d fill our lakes and rivers. Soon, every body of water could be full of catfish.
Fortunately, Dunham’s team was smarter than their movie counterparts. They made sure the modified catfish can’t breed.
The researchers used a technology called CRISPR to add alligator genes to the fish. This technology allows users to add and remove, or activate and deactivate, genes in the target DNA chain.
So, when they added the alligator genes, Dunham’s team turned off a gene responsible for reproduction. The catfish are genetically incapable of making babies even if they got into the wild.
That’s that problem solved. We’re then left with one more issue — do people want to eat alligator-catfish hybrids?
“I would eat it in a heartbeat,” said Dunham.
Of course he would — he made the things. But whether the public will feel the same way remains to be seen.