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Making Vegetarian Bouillabaisse: What Happens to GMOs If They Fail?

May 30, 2010

The “fish tomato” is special. It is one of the most infamous genomes on the planet, and according to some historians it has never existed. The idea of inserting a fish gene into a tomato to create a frost tolerant transgenic variety of tomato catalyzed political anger towards GE Food experimentation and commercialization on the right, on the left, amongst Christians and Greens, and the Royal Family.

However, many of the facts about this canonical genetically engineered organism are still unknown. In order to better tell the story of contemporary Genomic Gastronomy we have begun a research project titled “Vegetarian Bouillabaisse”, which is a recipe that call for the inclusion of the “Fish Tomato”. In attempting to acquire or recreate the Fish/Tomato in order to cook with it, we hope to reenact a unnecessarily murky period in the (recent) history of science. (I make sure to invite lots of Buddhists Vegetarians to my transgenic soup party.)

But first some background on the plant.

Q: Were fish genes ever inserted into a tomato?

A: Yes. Here (.pdf) is the approval for field test from the USDA. This document contains quite a bit of information about the “Fish Tomato” (a.ka. tomato; antifreeze gene; staphylococcal Protein A) and how DNA Plant Technology Corporation produced it. (They sold the technology to J.R. Simplot Company in 1995 and the company ceased R&D operations in 2002).

Although, beware, how you interpret “inserted”, “fish genes” and “tomato” may be different than how a biotechnologist, corporation, lawyer, government oversight board etc. understand the process and the product.

The metaphors and mental models about genomes, genes, transgenics and agricultural taxonomy haven’t caught up to the ability of humans to employ novel biotechnologies. That is one reason why the Center feels strongly that Amateurs, Artists and Historians should be critically engage with emerging BioTechnology.

For a good overview of the process employed to create the transgenic “Fish Tomato” I have included a useful information diagram from the BBC’s website. (I refuse to call it a “Frost Tolerant” tomato because I haven’t seen any experimental data that is was successful in field test conditions.)

(Please note that this feature is no longer stored on the BBC website. Here is A more complete .pdf of screen grabs of the original BBC story.)

Q: Would eating the Fish Tomato make me sick if I have a seafood allergy?

A: Probably not, but it is not clear that there has been any testing in this area. This particular product never reached the stage of commercialization and I can find no record of it being tested on human or non-human subjects. However, at it’s annual shareholder meeting in 1995, product samples of a different species of transgenic tomato that was being developed, but had not yet been commercialized, were provided for tasting by the attendees.

According to the Food Allergy Initiative “the protein in the flesh of fish most commonly causes the allergic reaction; however, it is also possible to have a reaction to fish gelatin, made from the skin and bones of fish. Although fish oil does not contain protein from the fish from which it was extracted, it is likely to be contaminated with small molecules of protein and therefore should be avoided.” It is unclear to me how much of a phenotypical change would have to take place in a non-seafood product, before it would produce the allergy-causing protein. I am certainly no expert, but it seems unlikely that the insertion of one gene would cause the production of the said proteins, but better safe than sorry. I wrote to the US NIH to get a more expert opinion. (UPDATE: Please see next blog post for more information.)

Q: Did the “Fish Tomato” ever exist as a material instantiation?

A: It appears that it did, but I have not seen any information about the number of plants or tomato fruits that were created. In the application for field test approval the company wrote “The plants have been tested in the greenhouse to obtain initial data relating to the genetic stability of the plants and preliminary data on efficacy.”

They went on to write “It is normal for controlled field tests to be performed after greenhouse testing to confirm the efficacy data, which can only be validated in the environment using standard agricultural practices. Such limited field testing is required to develop a potential agricultural product.” However, as in the case of many artifacts and genomes created in lab, there is not always transference of knowledge to the public domain. I would love it if anyone could provide a photograph of the plant.

Q: Was the Fish Tomato ever field tested outside of a lab?

A: It appears likely, but can not be confirmed. The company applied for and received approval to do a field test in Contra Costa County, California.

However, the U.S.D.A. doesn’t require an applying institution to actually perform a field test, nor does it collect or publish data on the results of field tests. So it may be the case that DNA Plant Technology applied for approval and never carried out the field test, although that seems unlikely at best. However, there is record in any public database that I have seen that confirms whether or not the field test actually took place, or what the results were.

Q: Does the “Fish Tomato” exist today?

A: The basic “technological recipe” for creating the Fish Tomato exists today. Whether or not any material copies of the genome are in existence are unknown.
Some possibilities are that:
– The Fish Tomato was only ever tested in a greenhouse. After the test all genetic material was destroyed and no genetic copies remain on planet earth, in the lab or in the field.
There is a lab / greenhouse somewhere in the world where copies of these plants still exist.
– The Tomato plant was field tested, and despite the best intentions the genomic data was passed on (bird / cross breeding etc.)

The listing of this last possibility is not to create fear, but to point out the total lack of transparency in the process of field testing transgenic oganisms once approval has been granted. The public does not even know if this transgenic organism was ever field tested, much less what the experimental results were, or whether the genome may exist somewhere on planet earth now, or only in a database as information.

Q: Did the gene inserted in the tomato make it frost tolerant?

I have been told that the discussion in the scientific community “is that the fish antifreeze protein doesn’t help increase cold tolerance in plants for several reasons- one being that the fish live in an aqueous environment and the plants live in soil and air. The physiological milieu is so different that the protein doesn’t help. Second, the arctic fish have to withstand a very consistent coldness of only one or two degrees below “normal”, and the antifreeze protein is satisfactory in facilitating survival in those conditions. In plants, however, the cold temperatures fluctuate and can drop many degrees below “normal”. The antifreeze protein does not seem to offer any help in such widely fluctuating temperatures.” However, I have not been able to corroborate these statements with field test data or other primary source documents. Under the current regulatory regime, if an institution is granted the right to field test a novel transgenic crop, they are not required to report or make public whether they actually tested the crop, and what the results of those test were.

That sounds like bad science. Since good science is verifiable our “Vegetarian Bouillabaisse” is attempting to access and field test the efficacy of this never commercialized species, or restage the re-create the Fish Tomato in the lab as a historical re enactment. If anyone would like to assist the Center in this project with technical expertise, or financial assistance please contact us at


Field Test Release Applications in the U.S.

ENVIRONMENTAL ASSESSMENT AND FINDING OF NO SIGNIFICANT IMPACT: Permit Number 91-079-01: tomato; antifreeze gene; staphylococcal Protein A

(Full Text (.pdf): “Expression of antifreeze proteins in transgenic plants” – Robin Hightower, et al. in Plant Molecular Biology (1991) “Accumulation of type I fish antifreeze protein in transgenic tobacco is cold-specific” – Kimberly D. Kenward et al. in Plant Molecular Biology (1993)


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