Centre for Aquatic Biotechnology Regulatory Research

Learn about the Centre for Aquatic Biotechnology Regulatory Research, its objectives and facility.

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Background

The Centre for Aquatic Biotechnology Regulatory Research is a national Centre of Expertise within Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO). We created the centre in 2008 to conduct research in support of the risk assessment and regulation of fish with novel traits, including genetically engineered fish.

Fish with novel traits have a trait (or traits) that is:

  • new to the fish
  • no longer expressed in the fish
  • expressed outside the normal range of expression for that trait in that fish

Researchers at the centre work closely with DFO regulators in Ottawa to:

  • design regulatory policies and approaches aimed at protecting the environment
  • set research priorities to generate unbiased scientific knowledge needed to inform the risk assessment

In addition to supporting the regulation of fish products of biotechnology, researchers at the centre conduct studies more broadly on the phenotype of fish with novel traits. Such phenotypes include:

  • fitness
  • behaviour
  • physiology
  • morphology
  • gene expression

This research is done whether the fish are developed through traditional breeding or modern biotechnology techniques.

Through the research, we gain insight into potential ecological effects from:

  • wild populations that escaped
  • intentionally released fish with novel traits

Mandate statement

The centre's mandate focuses on activities regarding fish with novel traits, such as:

  • coordinating, enabling and generating regulatory research results
  • providing scientific information to inform the risk assessment and regulation

Research objectives

The research objectives of the centre are elaborated in Theme 4 of DFO's Aquatic Biotechnology and Genomics Research and Development Strategy. They include:

  • conducting studies in support of:
    • risk assessment methodology
    • the design and implementation of regulations
  • assessing potential ecosystem impacts of transgenic aquatic animals
  • enabling risk assessment science through appropriate novel aquatic animal model:
    • identification
    • development
    • evaluation
  • developing and evaluating measures to prevent interaction between wild and novel aquatic animal strains (containment strategies)
Effect of growth hormone transgenesis on growth in coho salmon in culture conditions. Non-transgenic (left) and growth hormone transgenic (right) siblings at 12 months of age.

Effect of growth hormone transgenesis on growth in coho salmon in culture conditions. Non-transgenic (left) and growth hormone transgenic (right) siblings at 12 months of age.

We regularly evaluate each project objective and adjust the research focus based on the needs of the regulatory program. Some specific projects include:

  • assessing characteristics of novel organisms that would affect:
    • survival
    • reproduction
    • consequences to other organisms in the environment, such as:
      • predation
      • energetics
      • metabolism
      • disease resistance
      • feeding behaviour
      • swimming performance
  • informing regulatory processes on contained transgenic lines of aquatic organisms':
    • development
    • maintenance
    • characterization
  • developing and evaluating the effectiveness of biological containment for preventing interaction of wild and novel aquatic animals in nature
  • understanding phenotypic plasticity and the interaction of genotype and the environment (GXE) effects by evaluating fish under different environmental conditions changes, such as:
    • behavioural
    • physiological
    • morphological

An important role of the centre is to increase the coordination and sharing of regulatory research results that's being undertaken to address questions and regulatory development pertaining to aquatic organisms with novel traits by:

  • participating in national and international forums to provide and exchange:
    • research results
    • scientific information
    • risk assessment methodology
  • providing peer-reviewed and other published data on:
    • methodology
    • scientific findings
    • risk assessment theory
  • collaborating on research with:
    • other Canadian:
      • agencies
      • institutions
      • departments
    • international research partners

Research facility

The Centre for Aquaculture and Environmental Research (CAER) houses the Centre for Aquatic Biotechnology Regulatory Research (CABRR).

The Centre for Aquaculture and Environmental Research (CAER) houses the Centre for Aquatic Biotechnology Regulatory Research (CABRR).

The centre's research facility is located within the Centre for Aquaculture and Environmental Research in West Vancouver, British Columbia.

This fisheries-related research centre opened in 1968 and is located on a 7.9 acre site. Here, we're able to conduct research on fish with novel traits and study:

  • parameters influencing their fitness
  • their possible effects on the environment (ecological consequences)

The facility location offers various sources of water, such as:

  • sea water
  • well water
  • creek water

Each water source is used in the different types of environments, including:

  • tanks
  • artificial streams
  • mesocosms (outdoor controlled system)

Tank facilities

Several different tank sizes are used at various stages of the fish life cycle, including:  

  • hatchery trays
  • small freshwater tanks (200 liters)
  • medium sea water tanks (3,000 to 5,000 liters)

Artificial streams

To mimic the freshwater environment, salmonids use in nature, DFO constructed replicate stream environments with:

  • gravel
  • boulders
  • woody debris
  • natural creek water
  • natural food supplies

These artificial streams:

  • better represent environmental conditions found in the wild
  • offer an important experimental set-up for assessing the characteristics of the fish in semi-natural conditions

We've also constructed a circulating stream to examine the natural migratory processes of fish in stream environments during different:

  • seasons
  • times of day
  • treatment conditions

This stream facility is equipped with electronic tag detector systems that allow tracking of migratory tendencies of fish, such as:

  • movement between habitat types
  • upstream and downstream migration during smolting

Mesocosms

Mesocosm tanks of 350,000 liters of seawater each used to allow growth of fish under conditions more closely resembling the ocean. The circulating stream used for spawning trials can also be seen on the left.

Mesocosm tanks of 350,000 liters of seawater each used to allow growth of fish under conditions more closely resembling the ocean. The circulating stream used for spawning trials can also be seen on the left.

In addition to normal tank culture facilities, DFO also constructed 3 mesocosm tanks, each holding 350,000 liters of sea water. These mesocosms allow fish to grow under conditions more closely mimicking nature, compared to small research tanks maintained using standard fish culture practices. These more natural conditions include:

  • low density water
  • patchy food supply
  • minimal contact with humans

As such, the mesocosms are being used to experimentally determine how genetically engineered fish may fare in the open environment, relative to their wild counterparts.

Laboratories

The centre has modern research laboratories where we conduct genetic technologies to develop and analyze genetically modified fish strains.

The centre's laboratory facilities have the capability for:

  • DNA sequencing
  • general molecular biology
  • microarray analysis of gene expression
  • single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) analysis
  • quantitative-PCR (polymerase chain reaction assay)

Key research

Several key questions are relevant to assessing the environmental risks that genetically engineered fish may have if they were accidentally or intentionally released into the environment. This includes:

  • How well would genetically engineered fish survive and breed in the wild (for instance, what is their fitness)?
  • What impacts could genetically engineered fish have on native species and the ecosystem?
  • How effective are physical and biological containment methods for preventing genetically engineered fish from reproducing or breeding with native counterparts in the wild?

Survival and breeding in the wild

Genetic engineering of fish may result in enhanced or decreased fitness, depending on the specific environmental conditions.

For example, strains of growth-enhanced genetically engineered coho salmon have a very strong drive to eat. Under certain environmental conditions, this enhanced feeding motivation allows them to out-compete wild strains for food resources, thus increasing their likelihood of survival. However, it also drives them to increase their foraging activity and makes them more willing to abandon the safety of the school to feed. This behaviour makes them more susceptible to predation, thus decreasing their likelihood of survival.

These 2 consequences from the same trait (enhanced feeding) lead to opposing predictions about the ability of genetically engineered fish to survive in the wild. This provides an example of how it can be difficult to reliably assess the net potential effects of transgenic fish on the environment from limited experimental data.

Experiments help us identify important factors affecting fitness and consequences of transgenic fish. Developing a full understanding of the net consequences of transgenic fish requires significant data examining many aspects of the organisms':

  • behaviour
  • physiology
  • reproduction

Impacts on native species and the ecosystem

Illustration of the effect of the environment on phenotype: (a) tank environment; (b) semi-natural stream environments; (c) growth-hormone transgenic salmon (top fish) show very enhanced growth compared to non-transgenic (wild-type strain) salmon (bottom) when grown in tank environments with unlimited food supplies. Growth-hormone transgenic salmon which receive only wild-type salmon ration levels grow at normal rates (middle fish); (d) growth of growth-hormone transgenic salmon (top fish) is very greatly reduced under naturalized conditions, despite these environments supporting full growth rate of non-transgenic salmon (middle fish) that are comparable to that seen for the same strain in nature (bottom fish).

Illustration of the effect of the environment on phenotype: (a) tank environment; (b) semi-natural stream environments; (c) growth-hormone transgenic salmon (top fish) show very enhanced growth compared to non-transgenic (wild-type strain) salmon (bottom) when grown in tank environments with unlimited food supplies. Growth-hormone transgenic salmon which receive only wild-type salmon ration levels grow at normal rates (middle fish); (d) growth of growth-hormone transgenic salmon (top fish) is very greatly reduced under naturalized conditions, despite these environments supporting full growth rate of non-transgenic salmon (middle fish) that are comparable to that seen for the same strain in nature (bottom fish).

Laboratory conditions must accurately simulate environmental conditions to pass regulations. Regulators use laboratory-generated data on genetically engineered fish to predict how they may grow and behave in the wild.

We recognize the need to invest in infrastructure that more accurately simulates conditions in the wild. Our mesocosm tanks and artificial streams allow examination of parameters such as:

  • food type
  • habitat complexity
  • presence of predators

Data from these facilities shows that strains grown under different conditions don't always show the same morphology, physiology or behaviour. This response is phenotypic plasticity.

Further, the phenotype of different strains of salmonids (wild type vs. growth-hormone transgenic) can show different responses to changes in environmental conditions. This effect is known as genotype by environment interactions.

For example, transgenic fish grown in tank conditions can show very large increases in body size relative to wild-type fish grown under the same conditions. However, transgenic fish grown in semi-natural stream conditions don't show nearly the same growth acceleration as seen in tanks. But the non-transgenic fish show the same growth rate.

Thus, transgenic fish raised in tank environments are unlikely to accurately represent the characteristics of fish if they had lived in nature.

Containment methods for preventing reproduction and breeding

Apparatus used to pressure shock the fertilized eggs to induce triploidy.

Apparatus used to pressure shock the fertilized eggs to induce triploidy.

Apparatus used to pressure shock the fertilized eggs to induce triploidy (sterility).

Supporters of the technology are proposing methods for containing transgenic fish by inducing sterility. Such measures would significantly reduce risk by eliminating the potential for transgenic fish to breed and transmit a transgene in an unconfined situation.

It's possible to observe 100% efficacy in sterilizing fish using triploid technology when small numbers of fish are examined. However, recent laboratory testing on large numbers (about 65,000) of triploid coho salmon has revealed:

  • an average success rate of around 98%
  • a best success rate of 99.8%

A failure rate of 0.2% to 2% for triploidization would result in the presence of 100 to 1,000 fertile transgenic fish in a growout population of 50,000 animals.

Fertile fish that are accidentally or intentionally released into the environment could reproduce or interbreed with wild counterparts and lead to significant effects on the environment. This insight helps regulators to assess the strength of data in regulatory submissions.

Continued research is important to inform risk assessment and regulatory approaches to novel fish.

Contact information

Biotechnology and Aquatic Animal Health Branch
200 Kent St, 12W-129
Ottawa ON  K1A 1E6

Telephone: 1-866-633-6676
Fax: 613-991-1378
Email: aquabiotech@dfo-mpo.gc.ca

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