SAN DIEGO -- If Americans ever eat genetically engineered fast-growing salmon, it might be because of a Soviet biologist turned oligarch turned government minister turned fish farming entrepreneur.
That man, Kakha Bendukidze, holds the key to either extinction or survival for AquaBounty Technologies, a U.S. company hoping for federal approval of a type of salmon, which would be the first genetically engineered animal in the human food supply.
But 20 months since the Food and Drug Administration tentatively concluded that the fish would be safe to eat and for the environment, there has been no approval. AquaBounty is running out of money.
Bendukidze, the former economics minister of Georgia and AquaBounty's largest shareholder, says the company can stay afloat a while longer. But he is skeptical that genetically altered salmon will be approved in the U.S. in an election year, given the likely resistance from environmental and consumer groups.
"I understand politically that it's easier not to approve than to approve," Bendukidze said during a recent visit to San Diego.
While many people would be annoyed by the approval, he said, "There will be no one except some scientists who will be annoyed if it is not approved."
While opponents would cheer the company's demise, some scientists and biotechnology executives say that if transgenic animals cannot win approval in the U.S., then the U.S. will lose its lead in animal biotechnology as work moves elsewhere. Scientists in China, in particular, are trying to develop livestock that is resistant to mad cow and foot and mouth diseases, sheep with high yields of wool, and pigs and cows with healthy omega-3 fatty acids in their meat.
"Lack of funding, lack of regulation, you can drag it out only for so long," said James Murray, a professor of animal science at the University of California Davis, who has been genetically engineering goats so their milk produces human proteins that could help infants fight infections. He is now trying to move his herd to Brazil, where he has obtained funding.
The animal biotechnology industry is anemic to begin with. AquaBounty is the only U.S. company seriously trying to win approval for a transgenic animal for the food supply. A project at a Canadian university to develop a pig with less polluting manure was terminated recently for lack of commercial interest.
AquaBounty's Atlantic salmon contain a growth hormone gene from the Chinook salmon. They also contain a genetic switch from an eel-like creature known as the ocean pout that keeps the gene on even in cold weather -- unlike normal salmon. With the year-round production of growth hormone, the AquaBounty fish grow to market size in 16-18 months instead of 30.
Some members of Congress, led by those from Alaska, are promoting legislation that would prohibit or delay approval. They say the AquaBounty fish might be harmful to eat or could damage wild fisheries if they were to escape into the ocean. The giant salmon, for instance, might out-compete wild salmon for food or mates.
"We're messing with what Mother Nature has done," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in proposing such a measure last month. A $500,000 research grant awarded AquaBounty by the Agriculture Department last year was rescinded after a furor arose, company executives said.
The FDA said in September 2010 that because the salmon would be sterilized and raised inland, there was little chance they could mate with wild fish. That same month, a committee of outside advisers, while finding some faults with the FDA analysis, more or less endorsed its conclusion that the fish would be safe for consumers and the environment.
But with no word since and its cash dwindling, the company, based in Maynard, Mass., recently trimmed its workforce from 27 to 12 people, according to its chief executive, Ronald L. Stotish.
Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said in a rare comment on a pending application that it was simply taking time for her agency to complete its analysis of the salmon.
"It's a lengthy process, especially when you are dealing with a first-in-kind product that cuts across many dimensions," she said. A revised environmental assessment, a step necessary for approval, would be issued "very soon," she said.
Bendukidze said he was not interested in developing a salmon farming business but rather was interested in AquaBounty for its technology, which fit in with two trends:
One is that more efforts will be made to genetically improve farmed fish, either through engineering or breeding, much as is now done by breeding livestock.
The other would be a shift from raising fish in ocean pens to inland industrialized facilities, in which conditions can be carefully controlled. The fast-growing salmon can be produced for 20 percent less, he said, making it more feasible to raise them on land.
Bendukidze said he was confident the fish would eventually win approval and consumer acceptance because of lower production costs. "Salmon is salmon," he said. "At the end of the day, economics will win."