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The GloFish is a trademarked brand of genetically-modified fluorescent zebrafish with a bright red fluorescent color. Although not originally developed for the ornamental fish trade, it is the first genetically modified (GM) animal to become publicly available as a pet.

The original zebrafish from which the GloFish was developed is a native of rivers in India and Bangladesh. It measures four centimeters long and has black and white stripes, and over 200 million have been sold in the last 50 years in the United States ornamental fish market. Despite the number, zebra fish have never established any reproducing populations in the United States, primarily because they are tropical fish, unable to survive in the U.S. climate.

In 1999, Dr. Zhiyuan Gong and his colleagues at the National University of Singapore took a gene from a jellyfish that naturally produced a green fluorescent protein and inserted it into the zebrafish genome. This caused the fish to glow brightly under both natural white light and ultraviolet light. Their goal was to develop a fish that could detect pollution by selectively fluorescing in the presence of environmental toxins. The development of the always fluorescing fish was the first step in this process. Shortly thereafter, his team developed a line of red fluorescent zebra fish by adding a gene from a sea coral, and yellow fluorescent zebra fish, by adding a variant of the jellyfish gene. Later, a team of Taiwanese researchers at the National University of Taiwan, headed by Professor Huai-Jen Tsai, succeeded in creating a medaka (rice fish) with a fluorescent green color.

The scientists from NUS and businessmen from Yorktown Technologies, a company in Austin, Texas met and a deal was signed whereby Yorktown obtained the worldwide rights to market the GloFish. At around the same time, a separate deal was made between Taikong, the largest aquarium fish producer in Taiwan, and the Taiwanese researchers to market the green medaka in Taiwan under the name TK-1. In spring of 2003, Taiwan became the first country to authorize sales of a genetically modified organism as a pet. One hundred thousand fish were reported sold in less than a month at $18.60 apiece.

The GloFish was introduced to the American market in December, 2003 by Yorktown Technologies of Austin, Texas, after more than two years of extensive environmental research and consultation with various Federal and State agencies, as well as leading experts in the field of risk assessment. The definitive environmental risk assessment was made by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has jurisdiction over all genetically modified animals, including fluorescent zebra fish, since they consider the inserted gene to be a drug. Their official statement, made on the 9th of December 2003, was as follows:

"Because tropical aquarium fish are not used for food purposes, they pose no threat to the food supply. There is no evidence that these genetically engineered zebra danio fish pose any more threat to the environment than their unmodified counterparts which have long been widely sold in the United States. In the absence of a clear risk to the public health, the FDA finds no reason to regulate these particular fish." [1] (

Similar findings were reached by the State of California Department of Fish and Game and State of Florida Transgenic Aquatic Task Force. Despite these findings, the marketing of the fish was met by protests from a non-governmental organization called the Center for Food Safety.

Although they did not provide any scientific evidence that contradicted the FDA's position, they were concerned that the marketing of the GloFish would lead to the introduction of other biotech animals. To prevent this, the group, along with one of their sister organizations, filed a lawsuit in US Federal District Court to block the sale of the GloFish. The lawsuit sought a court order stating that the transgenic fish are subject to Federal regulation and could be sold further without proper approvals. In the opinion of Joseph Mendelson, the Center for Food Safety's legal director:

It's clear this sets a precedent for genetically engineered animals. It opens the dams to a whole host of nonfood genetically engineered organisms. That's unacceptable to us and runs counter to things the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific review boards have said, particularly when it comes to mobile GM organisms like fish and insects. [2] (

The Center for Food Safety's concerns, however, were found to be entirely without merit, as the suit was dismissed on March 30th, 2005.


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