There has been a lot of controversy recently about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the ethics of making GMOs commercially available, especially when it comes to the food we eat and potential health risks and benefits. However, genetically modified organisms have actually been around since the early 90’s, and was pretty revolutionary in the scientific community. As scientists learned more about the structure of DNA and how to manipulate it, they began to play around with modifying bacteria, then plants, food, and finally the most complex: animals. Now, I’m not here to convince you that genetic modification is ethical- some believe that it could be the step that leads to curing diseases, others think it could lead to a world that is not as nature intended. Whether or not you believe that genetic modification is ethical, it certainly is creative in its applications.
You may have seen GloFish in your local pet store- they are little fish that come in all sorts of bright colors. This sounds like any other fish, except that under UV lights their colors become much more vibrant and they actually glow in the dark! This phenomenon is called biofluorescence and is achieved through genes passed down generation to generation, meaning that it is not a dye or injection and does not harm the fish in any way.
Now, biofluorescence wasn’t created by GloFish founders Alan Blake and Richard Crockett. In fact, it is a natural occurrence in many fish used as communication. It is also found in jellyfish, which have something called Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) that allows them to essentially glow in the dark. This discovery is what made GloFish possible! The scientists that discovered GFP originally wanted to use the idea to create fish that glow in the presence of polluted water. They were definitely innovative, but unsuccessful in their end goal. Alan Blake and Richard Crockett, however, saw a commercial application for this scientific discovery.
Alan Blake is a UT grad with a degree in finance and Richard Crockett is a biology grad who went to Yale. Timing played a big role for these men; Blake was in Austin, Texas during “the height of the dot-com bubble, and startups were everywhere.” Extrinsic motivation was all around in the form of jobs and money, and intrinsic motivation was fueled by the competition between startups like the one Blake worked for just before Crockett contacted him with the big idea: pets that glow in the dark. It took them two years to perfect the idea, and GloFish went on the market in 2003. It was an instant success because genetically modified pets were not heard of previously, and media debate got word out fast. Plus, what kid doesn’t want a glow in the dark pet fish?
Crockett went on to medical school, so Blake managed the company once it took off; I will analyze Blake only because he has been the voice of the company since it began and was crucial in connecting the science with the business world.
Now, Blake gives advice to future entrepreneurs, saying that breaking new ground is worth the hard work. “Blake has found passion to be the most important driving force behind the business.” Clearly, intrinsic motivation is what really matters to Blake. In the article “Rewarding creativity: when does it really matter?”, Baer et. Al. considers job type and motivation:
“complex jobs (i.e., those characterized by high levels of autonomy, skill variety, identity, significance, and feedback) are expected to encourage higher levels of intrinsic motivation and creativity than jobs that are relatively simple and routine in nature.”
In this context, it makes sense that Blake focuses on the intrinsic motivators; bringing something completely new to the market is probably pretty challenging and complex, and significance and feedback play large roles in his job.
The creation and sale of GloFish is a great example of how scientific discoveries can be utilized outside of the laboratory. They are not only fun pets, but can be used as a science lesson for kids or even a PSA that GMOs may be less harmful than the public believes. There may even be future creatives working off of Crockett and Blake’s ideas as GloFish seem to be only the beginning of commercialized genetic modification. The possibilities are endless!