Alligator-Catfish Hybrids Are Being Spawned in an Alabama Lab

Using gene-editing technology and just a pinch of alligator DNA, scientists at Auburn have created a sterile, hybrid species of catfish they say is more resistant to infection
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Adobe stock farmed catfish
Catfish farming is a huge industry both here in the United States and abroad. Adobe stock

In an effort to build a better catfish, researchers at Auburn University have genetically engineered a hybrid catfish species using alligator DNA. The methodology might sound scary. But the byproducts are nearly identical to the farm-raised catfish sold in grocery stores throughout the country. Still, regulatory approval isn’t a guarantee and these reptilian mud kitties won’t end up on the shelves anytime soon.

Creating a More Resilient Catfish

Americans eat a lot of catfish, and it’s impossible to put a number on how many chuckleheads we catch and cook on an annual basis. Regardless, it’s not enough to satisfy the overall demand. In 2021 alone, we imported around 256 million pounds of it from other countries. Meanwhile, we commercially produced another 307 million pounds here at home. Most of these farm-raised fish come from the South—primarily Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas—where the deep-fried delicacy’s true soulmate, the “hush puppy,” was born.

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The only problem with raising catfish in farm ponds is that these water bodies turn into breeding grounds for disease. Farmers lose a huge number of fish every year to various infections. That’s why researchers at Auburn University are trying to create a more resilient catfish. With some genetic engineering and just a pinch of alligator DNA, a team of scientists have successfully spawned a new hybrid catfish species that they believe can better resist infection.

To achieve this, the research team led by Rex Dunham and Baofeng Su is using CRISPR technology, which allows scientists to edit and alter the genes of plants and animals. They were already looking for a genetic component to increase the heartiness of freshwater catfish. That search led them to a unique protein found in alligators called cathlecidin. In an interview with the Ireland-based Fish Site, Dunham explained that this antimicrobial protein is thought to protect alligators from developing infections in their wounds. The team figured if they could insert this gene into catfish, they’d end up with a more resilient fish.

Ethical Concerns

One fear that came up during the experiment was the risk of a genetically modified super-fish escaping from farms and disrupting neighboring ecosystems. To prevent this, they used the CRISPR gene-editing tool to remove a catfish gene associated with reproduction. They replaced it with the alligator gene. With these genes swapped, the hybrid catfish are unable to reproduce.

Follow-up experiments proved that the survival rates of these hybrid fish were “between two- and five-fold higher,” according to Dunham. While they haven’t been peer-reviewed yet, their findings have since been published in bioRxiv.

Because of the ethical concerns surrounding CRISPR technology and genetic modification, regulatory approval for these hybrid catfish isn’t a certainty. The experiment has already raised doubts among the larger scientific community as well. Some have argued that even if these hybrids are more resilient, most fish farmers don’t have a use for lab-spawned, sterile fish. And even though the hybrid species is still just a catfish, there’s also the marketing problem of selling hybridized alligator-catfish to consumers.

Dunham and Su think people could eventually come around to the idea, and Dunham explained that it’s unlikely anybody would notice a difference in the meat itself. “I would eat it in a heartbeat,” he said.