Hoping to give new meaning to the term “natural light,” a small group of biotechnology hobbyists and entrepreneurs has started a project to develop plants that glow, potentially leading the way for trees that can replace electric streetlamps and potted flowers luminous enough to read by.
The project, which will use a sophisticated form of genetic engineering called synthetic biology, is attracting attention not only for its audacious goal, but for how it is being carried out.
Rather than being the work of a corporation or an academic laboratory, it will be done by a small group of hobbyist scientists in one of the growing number of communal laboratories springing up around the US as biotechnology becomes cheap enough to give rise to a do-it-yourself movement.
The project is also being financed in a DIY sort of way: It has attracted more than US$250,000 in pledges from about 4,500 donors in about two weeks on the Web site Kickstarter.
The effort is not the first of its kind. A university group created a glowing tobacco plant a few years ago by implanting genes from a marine bacterium that emits light. However, the light was so dim that it could be perceived only if one observed the plant for at least five minutes in a dark room.
The new project’s goals, at least initially, are similarly modest.
“We hope to have a plant which you can visibly see in the dark [like glow-in-the-dark paint], but don’t expect to replace your light bulbs with version 1.0,” the project’s Kickstarter page says.
However, part of the goal is more controversial: to publicize do-it-yourself synthetic biology and to “inspire others to create new living things.”
As promising as that might seem to some, critics are alarmed at the idea of tinkerers creating living things in their garages. They fear that malicious organisms may be created, either intentionally or by accident.
Two environmental organizations, Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group, have written to Kickstarter and to the US Department of Agriculture, which regulates genetically modified crops, hoping to shut down the glowing plant effort.
The project “will likely result in widespread, random and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds and plants produced through the controversial and risky techniques of synthetic biology,” the two groups said in their letter demanding that Kickstarter remove the project from its Web site.
They note that the project has pledged to deliver seeds to many of its 4,000 contributors, making it perhaps the “first-ever intentional environmental release of an avowedly ‘synthetic biology’ organism anywhere in the world.”
Kickstarter told the critics to take up their concerns with the project’s organizers. The US Department of Agriculture has not yet replied.
Antony Evans, the manager of the glowing plant project, said in an interview that the activity would be safe.
“What we are doing is very identical to what has been done in research laboratories and big institutions for 20 years,” he said.
Still, he added: “We are very cognizant of the precedent we are setting” with the do-it-yourself project and that some of the money raised would be used to explore public policy issues.
Synthetic biology is a nebulous term and it is difficult to say how, if at all, it differs from genetic engineering.
In its simplest form, genetic engineering involves snipping a gene out of one organism and pasting it into the DNA of another. Synthetic biology typically involves synthesizing the DNA to be inserted, providing the flexibility to go beyond the genes found in nature.