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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Genetic Engineering Multiplies Fish Growth

In an old mill building in landlocked Thompson, Connecticut, a University of Connecticut scientist and a Pennsylvania businessman are mimicking the miracle of Jesus on the Sea of Galilee.

While St. Peter, through divine intervention, found his nets full of tilapia -- a flounder-like fish that fed the multitudes of ancient Israelis -- Thomas T. Chen and Richard Fahs are using the miracles of genetic manipulation to make the species grow faster and sell it to a fish-hungry world.

With the help of $1 million in state financing, Fahs recently moved his fish-farming company from Pennsylvania to Connecticut so he could hook up with Chen, whose genetically altered tilapia grow twice as fast as their ancestors in St. Peter's nets.

Chen has developed a way to implant tilapia eggs with growth genes of carp and rainbow trout so they reach the single-serving size in six months -- half of nature's one-year maturity rate.

Now his breakthrough is taking the critical step to commercial application.

Fahs says growing fish faster makes economic sense because the world has a growing taste for the flaky white creatures that now sell for about $2.90 per kilogram retail.

Fahs said his company, Connecticut Aquaculture Inc., may produce 2.3 million kilograms per year when it reaches full capacity

Production will expand next year to an old mill site now being renovated in Willimantic, and the firm also will serve as a demonstration project for Connecticut's emerging aquaculture industry.

Officials say the Willimantic and Thompson sites are ideally located between major markets in New York and Boston, and close to Montreal, too. "No one thinks of agriculture when they think of biotech,'' said Shirley Ferris, commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, which sent representatives to examine Fahs' operation in Danville, Pennsylvania, before striking a deal. "But we want to move ideas out of the university labs and into the business world.'' Fahs is marrying his patented water-filtration system -- that allows more efficient, disease-free breeding in less space -- to Chen's breakthrough in growing the fish faster.

Fahs says fish farming in open-water ponds is troubled by problems such as the accumulation of fish waste. Decomposing waste and disease-carrying bacteria compete with the fish for oxygen, limiting the number of fish that can be bred. Aquarium filtration systems based on organic filters also have problems, because toxins build up, Fahs said.

Fahs said his non-organic system filters out toxins harmful to fish and also recaptures useful byproducts that can be used for fertilizer. The cleaner tank means he can raise more fish, and they are less likely to carry diseases.

"I took that idea [the filtration system] to bust, and I was growing them as fast as I could,'' Fahs said. "But then I got a list of top aquacultural scientists, and Tom headed the list.''

Chen was at the University of Maryland when Fahs first sought him out.

The potential commercial applications of the tilapia intrigued Chen.

Chen persuaded Fahs to consider Connecticut as a new site for his company after Chen became director of the University of Connecticut's biotechnology center in the summer of 1995.

"My goal was to produce a fish that was reasonably priced to feed the world's people,'' Chen said.