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A Hong Kong Startup Thinks Glowing Fish Embryos Could Improve Food Safety

China’s food safety record has been anything but stellar, but a Hong Kong-based startup sees hope in a food-testing technology, which uses fish embryos that turn fluorescent in the presence of toxins.

In recent years, China's food safety record has been anything but stellar. It seems like every few weeks there's a new report about some new, creepy discovery in any number of industries: the tainted baby formula incident that sickened 300,000, the contaminated meat in fast-food restaurants, even soy sauce made from human hair. Then there was that whole goat-meat-soaked-in-duck-urine scandal. And who could forget the infamous gutter oil debacle from last year?


But despite the nation's horrendous track record over the past decade, there are many people working to find new solutions to a problem that just seems to get more and more grotesque. And sometimes, it requires thinking outside of the box—and into the aquarium.

A Hong Kong-based startup called Vitargent sees hope in a food-testing technology centered around fish embryos, which would enable scientists to detect contaminants and poisons in everything from food and beverages to makeup and body lotion. The test that they've developed using the tiny fish can allegedly detect more than 1,000 different toxic substances, a giant leap from existing processes that only give results for five to ten toxins at a time.

Vitargent is using engineered embryos of oryzias—also known as Japanese ricefish or medaka—which either develop tumors or turn fluorescent in the presence of certain dangerous chemicals and other additives. In the presence of bisphenol-A, for example—the dreaded BPA your water bottle promises not to contain—the fish will light up like a glowstick, thanks to a jellyfish gene that's been spliced into their genomes. The company's founder and executive director Eric Chen told the South China Morning Post that the fish have a similar DNA structure to humans, and react the same way to toxins.

Chen sees a huge opportunity for this chemical-detection method in China, and his company hopes to institute its testing regimen throughout the region. "Businesses are so creative they will add anything you can imagine to our food and drink," he told the Post.

Indeed. Viagra-laced baijiu is only the beginning.