If you thought the seafood section of your local grocery store offered a refuge from genetic modification techniques commonly used in agricultural crops, I have some bad news for you.
AquaBounty Technologies, now owned by synthetic biology company Intrexon (NASDAQ:XON), has developed an engineered Atlantic salmon named AquAdvantage Salmon that matures twice as fast as conventional salmon. Aquaculture may not be on your investing radar, but the global industry is valued at over $100 billion and is the fastest growing segment of the worldwide food industry. Genome editing technologies promise to expedite the growth further -- and they will arrive sooner than you think. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is poised to approve the aquaculture company's product for marketing next year, which would open the regulatory door for engineered trout, tilapia, and shrimp being developed by the two companies.
You may not like the idea of altering the genetic code of more complex organisms -- especially those that end up on your dinner plate -- instead preferring the technology sticks to simpler microorganisms being developed by synthetic biology companies such as Amyris (NASDAQ:AMRS) and Solazyme (NASDAQ:TVIA). However, enhanced aquaculture technologies present impressive growth opportunities and environmental advantages for investors and consumers. Is the technology safe? Are the advantages real and measurable? How long until biotech fish stare back at you from your own dinner plate? Let's swim through the possibilities.
How do you safely make a biotech fish?
It's actually quite simple. AquaBounty introduced one gene from a Pacific Chinook salmon into its AquAdvantage Salmon, or AAS, to allow it to grow to full market size in half the time. Despite the hastier maturity profile, AAS produce the same amount of growth hormone as conventional salmon. A molecular switch (called a "promoter") from an antifreeze protein gene was also integrated into the fish genome, although AAS do not produce antifreeze protein. Additionally, all AAS will be sterile females; ensuring there will be no gene flow to wild populations if they escape production facilities.
Engineered fish will undoubtedly encounter some backlash from consumers -- with Whole Foods Market already stating it would ban them from its stores -- but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that they were safe to eat in 2010. Moreover, considering that Atlantic salmon hold roughly 40,000 genes -- compared to about 24,000 genes for humans -- only 0.0025% of the genome has been altered. Aside from growth, there are no discernable differences between AquaBounty's engineered product and a wild Atlantic salmon.
Nonetheless, that single genetic change results in a giant gain in productivity. It's important to note that AAS do not grow larger than wild Atlantic salmon -- they simply grow to full size more quickly. Take a look at how they compare to their conventional counterparts:
AquaBounty can grow the same amount of fish in half the time (or less) while adding substantial environmental benefits with no additional risks. But are the advantages tangible?
Advantages of biotech fish
Although Intrexon played no role in developing AquAdvantage Salmon, the companies are exploring ways to utilize synthetic biology to develop even better products with more efficient production profiles. If you think of traditional genetic engineering -- crops and essentially all genetically engineered commercial products created to date -- as the first, most basic form of genome editing, then synthetic biology -- or utilizing the building blocks of life to assemble novel technologies -- represents the next big leap. Either way, both can offer real and measurable advantages.
For instance, synthetic biology pioneer Amyris stormed onto the scene by engineering yeast to create artemisinic acid, which can be transformed into artemisinin -- one of the most potent anti-malarial compounds on the planet. The medicine is traditionally harvested in plants, but agricultural methods have produced widely variably global stockpiles in recent years. Price jolts have kept it out of reach of the world's poorest in bad harvests and threatened to lead to its overuse and resistance in good harvests. Luckily the biomanufacturing process, licensed to Sanofi in 2008 with commercial production beginning last April, has already begun stabilizing world stockpiles and price.
As the pharmaceutical giant uses synthetic biology to produce one-third of the world's annual artemisinin crop in bioreactors, Amyris is focusing on developing novel molecules for fuels, chemicals, cosmetics, and fragrances with other engineered yeast strains. Meanwhile, Solazyme is altering heterotrophic algae strains (those that grow on sugar rather than sunlight) to produce renewable oils for fuels, chemicals, cosmetics, and nutraceuticals. In fact, Solazyme should have a global operating capacity of more than 120,000 metric tons of renewable products by mid-2015.
The important takeaway is that both technology platforms offer substantial reductions in land mass requirements compared to traditional agricultural methods for obtaining natural products and tremendous environmental benefits compared to products sourced from petroleum. Intrexon and AquaBounty may be altering fish, but the benefits are much the same.
AquaBounty has a 100 metric ton-per-year land-based facility in Panama that will begin producing AAS once the FDA grants approval, hopefully in early 2014. That's not even a drop in the bucket compared with the annual global aquaculture opportunity for Atlantic salmon of 230,000 metric tons. However, approval would allow for more AAS farms to be constructed (each requiring FDA approval) worldwide. Why focus on land-based farms?
Although AAS won't be able to transfer genes to wild populations of fish (they're sterile), building aquaculture farms with geographic barriers offers additional benefits that go far beyond gene flow risks. A land-based farm would significantly reduce the risk of transferring disease from farm-raised fish -- a more frequent occurrence with aquaculture -- to natural populations. Additionally, coastal regions would not be overrun with commercial aquaculture operations and could capture economic benefits from higher value industries. Farms could also be located near major consumer markets, which would reduce environmental impacts resulting from transportation. That means residents of Austin, Texas, could theoretically eat locally produced salmon. Imagine that!
Fear the Frankenfish?
While Amyris and Solazyme are developing industrial biotechnology platforms that depend on the optimization of select microorganisms to produce industrial chemicals, investors and consumers should realize that the potential of synthetic biology extends far beyond single-celled organisms. If AquaBounty can successfully navigate to the end of its 18-year regulatory journey and raise additional capital in the second quarter of 2014 (likely from Intrexon) for commercial deployment, then AquAdvantage salmon will probably begin making their way to dinner plates by 2015. You would have a difficult time finding them in stores, but they would be the first major commercial product for Intrexon, which consolidates the company's financial statements into its own.
If you're willing to roll the dice that a growing world can't live without the next generation of aquaculture technologies, then Intrexon would be a great buy-and-hold investment for any portfolio (it's far from the only product in development). Nonetheless, there is no reason to fear engineered salmon. The advantages are simply too big to ignore or write off because of ignorance.