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Virginia Tech professor raises awareness about animal biotechnology and fisheries genetics

August 14, 2017

Erich Hallerman
Eric Hallerman

In 2010, Eric Hallerman, professor of fisheries in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, advised the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on the environmental issues surrounding genetically engineered salmon as the agency worked to approve the fish for production and human consumption.

Now he is continuing his work promoting a better understanding of animal biotechnology and fisheries genetics.

Hallerman recently published “Genetic Resources of Neotropical Fishes” with colleague Alexandre W.S. Hilsdorf, associate professor of biotechnology at the University of Mogi das Cruzes in Brazil. The book summarizes the science of genetics and fisheries management and offers recommendations to help fisheries professionals in Latin America utilize fisheries genetics.

“Much of Latin America lacks data on fish genetics, and many fisheries professionals lack the sense that this is an important part of fisheries management,” said Hallerman, who is a faculty member in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation. “The way universities are organized, many students going into fisheries take classes in zoology or veterinary medicine. And they don’t get very deep into genetics.”

The book offers case studies on the principles of genetics as they relate to fisheries management by compiling much of the research to date. Species-by-species examples detail current research and suggest what is yet to be done.

Hallerman hopes the book will be used as a learning tool for fisheries professionals and students alike. He plans to develop a lecture series to help Latin American readers better understand the book’s material.

“We’re hoping to reach the next generation of fisheries management professionals who are coming through school now. This book can be a teaching resource for professors teaching those students,” explained Hallerman, who is also affiliated with Virginia Tech’s Fralin Life Science Institute.

“We also want to promote sustainability in Latin American fisheries,” he continued. “This is a collaboration across regions in order to promote the sustainability of their fisheries that are under threat from overfishing, dams, and industrialization. The farming sector is taking up more and more land, and yet people don’t appreciate that if you take out the forest, you have huge impacts on fisheries. Most of society is unaware.”

Hallerman hopes that the book will inspire Latin American students to delve into the world of genetics and continue to make advancements in the field.

“We need to foster the entry of more scientists in this field,” he said. “The technology is moving so fast, and I want to see advancement continue moving quickly. We hope the book raises awareness throughout Latin America.”

In addition, Hallerman organized the Third International Workshop for Regulation of Animal Biotechnology in Charlottesville, Virginia, in June to discuss rapid advancements in genetically modified animals and their place in food and fiber production. Some 150 academics, regulators, and industry professionals from 38 countries attended.

This was the first time the workshop was held in the United States. Its goal was to promote effective, science-based regulatory oversight of genetically engineered animals.

“We have genetically modified crops on the market, but on a global scale only two genetically modified animals — a salmon engineered to grow faster and a mosquito engineered to be viable but reproductively sterile — have been approved to date,” Hallerman explained.

“The technology that is currently being developed can produce animals that are more disease resistant, can produce longer-lasting products like milk, and utilize feed more efficiently, leading to less strain on the environment,” he continued. “We need to put regulatory systems in place so we’ll be ready to actively consider applications as they come forward to the regulatory agencies.”

Regulating genetically modified animals is a slow process that varies from country to country. For example, the genetically modified salmon that Hallerman helped gain approval in the United States have yet to be sold here due to labeling complications. In Canada, however, five tons of the same salmon fillets have been sold so far.

Hallerman explained that regulations often require trials with very large sample sizes, which can place financial and logistical burdens on researchers trying to get their animals approved.

“Sometimes, such as for agricultural production animals, those large sample sizes make sense. But for other animals, such as those that produce pharmaceutical proteins, those numbers aren’t necessary and can even lead to the loss of new technology because researchers can’t afford to maintain their herds while waiting for approval,” he said.

“We need to decide ‘What is a reasonable set of expectations for regulation?’ The task for regulators is to approve well-chosen lines that promote the sustainability and resiliency of our food production systems, promote human health, or provide useful products not otherwise available.”

The workshop, funded primarily by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, provided an opportunity for attendees to begin asking those questions.

“It was a very informal workshop, with a lot of time for people to just talk about these topics. We discussed regulatory processes and what’s working or not working in various countries,” Hallerman said.

“I hope that attendees left knowing more about this technology and having made some professional connections. Moving forward, they should have a better sense of best regulatory practices, so if they’re still making rules, they have a better sense of what’s normal in other countries. And if they have questions, they have colleagues they can contact to talk it out,” he concluded.

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