Scientists accidentally create new type of fish, as one does

A Russian sturgeon fish in a pond at a farm in the Rostov region of Russia
A Russian sturgeon fish in a pond at a farm in the Rostov region of Russia
Photo: Valery Matytsin/TASS (Getty Images)

Those of you who don’t already subscribe to the scientific journal Genes might want to sign up today, so that you never miss another report on something like the rise of the Sturddlefish—a new hybrid created entirely by accident when scientists tried to save a fish from extinction.

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The Russian sturgeon produces some of the world’s most prized caviar, but it’s currently critically endangered thanks to overfishing and destruction of its habitat. Hungarian scientists recently undertook a project intended to save the sturgeon from extinction by encouraging asexual reproduction within the species. Gynogenesis, according to CNN, “uses the treated sperm of another species to coax the specimen’s eggs to develop.” In this case, the sperm was from the American paddlefish, and everything went sideways.

In the process of gynogenesis, the DNA from the American paddlefish wasn’t supposed to transfer to the Russian sturgeon’s eggs, but somehow, it did—one theory is that the two fish had genes that were more similar than the scientists had anticipated, allowing them to hybridize and produce a whole lot of wonky offspring. And lo, the sturddlefish was born! (That’s not the official name, but it’s definitely going to catch on better than whatever else scientists decide to call it.)

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Each of the resulting fish look a little different, most of them bearing a stronger resemblance to the sturgeon (which was, of course, the whole idea). But if the offspring adopt the paddlefish’s dietary habits instead of the sturgeon’s, then the hybrid fish could greatly benefit the environment: Sturgeon have a diet of larger crustaceans while paddlefish feed on smaller organisms like plankton, making the latter’s diet more sustainable in the long run. (Microscopic organisms don’t have to be shipped in to feed the fish, meaning fewer carbon emissions.) Cheap diet + expensive roe = money in the bank.

It’s like a romcom, isn’t it? Two fish that seemingly have nothing in common—the paddlefish enjoying its carefree life in the Mississippi River Basin, the serious-minded Russian sturgeon focused on a cutthroat game of survival of the fittest—brought together by the unlikeliest of circumstances, and left with a whole passel of little ones to contend with. It sets them up nicely for a sequel, at least.

Marnie Shure is editor in chief of The Takeout.

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DISCUSSION

I remember seeing a documentary about this years ago: