It’s 2005. I’ve turned the lights low, flipped the switch for the black light and pulled up my big, ragged cushion to be up close to the glass. Staring into the aquarium as the room dissolves around me the small fish are being normal, swimming, fish but to me they are mesmerizing. Vibrant colors fluoresce and pull me into the deep blue of future imaginations. What if schools had GloFish in the classroom? Would kids get curious about science? What if thousands of people had Glofish in their home? Would they open their hearts and minds to the genome revolution that’s underway?
The first mass-marketed, genetically modified animal.
The media exposure in 2003 was huge and mostly negative. Then gradually perceptions began to change as independent pet stores began to sell the fish. When the New York Times wrote that GloFish could be a sign of future possibilities, sales of the small beautiful fish took off. Fifteen years later, GloFish remain the only widely-marketed biotech animal and are sold in more than 7,000 stores in the U.S.
University of Minnesota connection.The genetically modified fish were originally developed by scientists in Singapore to detect toxins in water. Alan Blake, CEO of Yorktown Technologies, saw commercial potential and acquired a patent to market the fish. Looking for scientific expertise, Blake partnered with scientists Perry Hackett and Scott McIvor at the University of Minnesota and with their biotech company, Discovery Genomics (DGI).
Getting the science right was Aidas Nasevicius’s job at DGI. Perry Hackett has emphasized the difficulties explaining that, “Aidas has made every single line of GloFish that have been produced”. Aidas gained his biochemistry and biophysics expertise as Steve Ekker's second grad student in the The Department of Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biophysics at the University of Minnesota. Then as a post doc he worked at DGI and now as director of GloFish at Spectrum Brands. Aidas was an invited speaker at the GWG 2017 Conference and you can listen to his talk and the lively discussion that followed on the audio clip (above). Some excerpts from the Q and A:
Q: What was the biggest surprise in the GloFish story?
A: They were harder to make than we thought.
Q: What caused people to change their minds about genetically modified fish?
A: Once enough GloFish were sold the media gave up and recognized there was no story.
Q: If you had it to do all over again, what would you do differently?
A: That requires a lengthy discussion over a couple of beers (laughter).
Aidas summed up the impact of the beautiful science of GloFish: “they offer companionship, connection with nature, and a wonderful way to teach children about the responsibilities of pet ownership. And a fascinating case study into transcending the often-heated debate regarding biotechnology.”
Written by Lynn Fellman