What do you get when you cross an alligator with a catfish? It sounds like the start of a bad joke, or the premise of a really bad horror flick. But it's actually what geneticists at Auburn University are doing in order to create catfish that are more disease-resistant than wild catfish, with the ultimate goal of helping catfish farmers increase their yields and feed more people.
Hannah Getahun of Insider explains:
A group of scientists at Auburn University published a paper in January detailing their efforts to genetically modify catfish with the cathelicidin gene of an alligator.
Cathelicidin, found in the intestines, is an antimicrobial peptide responsible for helping organisms fight diseases.
The gene, which was added using CRISPR, heightened disease resistance among the catfish in comparison to wild catfish. Researchers noted that the survival rates of the catfish were "two- and five-fold higher" in an interview with MIT Technology Review.
None of this is a done deal, however. Scientists are still working out the kinks, as Insider clarifies:
The authors noted some uncertainties in using CRISPR technology — primarily used and studied in mammals— on fish. The paper has not yet been peer-reviewed.
However, researchers hope that the alligator and catfish gene-editing can be used in tandem with other catfish breeding techniques to help farmers with their catfish yields.
Insider also explains that 307 million pounds of live catfish were produced in 2021—and catfish comprise over 50% of American consumer demand for farm-raised fish. There's clearly a market for catfish, and the process of farming so much fish to meet such high demand can be rife with issues, including the high rates of disease that often plague catfish farms, which only exacerbates the increasing resistance to antibiotics seen in farmed fish. I had a friend in college who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and worked at catfish farms during the summers, and he swore off eating catfish because of what he'd witnessed. Maybe injecting alligator genes into catfish is the answer to all of these problems—I mean, what on earth could go wrong?