More valuable than gold, but not for long: genetically-modified sea cucumbers headed to China's dinner tables

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2015, 7:45am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 August, 2015, 7:45am

Sea cucumbers may soon fall out of the list of the world's most expensive foodstuffs thanks to a breakthrough study by Chinese scientists.

By genetically modifying the white sea cucumber, a Chinese delicacy for thousands of years with a price per gram higher than gold, the researchers have opened the door to the mass production of the animals for the first time.

Sea cucumbers are soft bodied creatures commonly found on the ocean beds. White cucumbers are due to rare mutations that only occur once in every 200,000 individuals.

"Albino" sea cucumbers cannot pass the trait to their offspring, and often die young due to the lack of camouflage to protect against predators.

This makes breeding the incredibly valuable creature almost impossible. An adult white sea cucumber, weighing around 200 grams, can currently sell for more than 100,000 yuan (US$16,000), or about 500 yuan per gram, more than twice the current price of gold.

Some believe that the white sea cucumber possesses healing powers that can cure diseases such as cancer.

But the high price tag and alleged health benefits were not the ultimate drive behind the research, lead scientist Yang Hongsheng told the South China Morning Post.

“They may hold the key to solving many mysteries of marine biology,” said Yang, deputy director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Oceanology in Qingdao.

Sea cucumbers exhibit a number of bizarre behaviours uncommon in the animal kingdom; they can hibernate in summer, eject and regrow their intestines, and – at the end of their decade or so on earth – release a chemical to dissolve their bodies, leaving no trace.

This covert form of death is not found in any other species.

Intrigued by the various cucumber phenomena, Yang and his team convinced the Chinese government to fund one of the most ambitious ever studies carried out on the creature.

Earlier this year they produced the first complete genetic map for sea cucumbers, along with the discovery of a number of new functional genes.

By modifying the gene responsible for albinism, MITF, the scientists were able to obtain more than 150 million baby white sea cucumbers, suitable for use in aqua-farms, according to a report on the academy's website.

Yang said they could not precisely estimate the white sea cucumber's market price in future, due to the uncertainty of the animals' nutrition and health as they develop.

The scientists plan to carry out more research to establish whether in fact the albino cucumbers offer any actual benefits for cuisine or medicine.