The glowing plant project is the brainchild of Evans, a technology entrepreneur in San Francisco, and Omri Amirav-Drory, a biochemist. They met at Singularity University, a program that introduces entrepreneurs to futuristic technology.
Amirav-Drory runs a company called Genome Compiler, which makes a program that can be used to design DNA sequences. When the sequence is done, it is transmitted to a mail-order foundry that synthesizes the DNA.
Kyle Taylor, who received his doctorate in molecular and cell biology at Stanford last year, will be in charge of putting the synthetic DNA into the plant.
The research is to be done, at least initially, at BioCurious, a communal laboratory in Silicon Valley that describes itself as a “hackerspace for biotech.”
The first plant the group is modifying is Arabidopsis thaliana, part of the mustard family and the laboratory rat of the plant world. The organizers hope to move next to a glowing rose.
Scientists have long made glowing creatures for research purposes. Examples include one or more monkeys, cats, pigs, dogs and worms. Glowing zebra fish have been sold in some aquarium shops for years.
These creatures typically have the gene for a green fluorescent protein, derived from a jellyfish, spliced into their DNA. However, they glow only when ultraviolet light is shined on them.
Others going back to the 1980s have transplanted the gene for luciferase, an enzyme used by fireflies, into plants.
However, luciferase will not work without another chemical called luciferin. So the plants did not glow unless luciferin was constantly fed to them.
In 2010, researchers at Stony Brook University reported in the journal PLOS One that they had created a tobacco plant that glowed entirely on its own, however dimly. They spliced into the plant all six genes from a marine bacterium necessary to produce both luciferase and luciferin.
Alexander Krichevsky, who led that research, has started a company, BioGlow, to commercialize glowing plants, starting with ornamental ones, since it is still impractical to replace light bulbs.
“Wouldn’t you like your beautiful flowers to glow in the dark?” he said, invoking the glowing foliage in the movie Avatar.
Krichevsky declined to provide more about the products, timetables or the investors backing his company, which is based in St Louis, Missouri.
Whether it will ever be possible to replace light bulbs remains to be seen and depends to some extent on how much of the plant’s energy can be devoted to light production while still allowing the plant to grow. Evans said his group calculated, albeit with many assumptions, that a tree that covers a ground area of 10m by 10m might be able to cast as much light as a street lamp.
While the US Department of Agriculture regulates genetically modified plants, it does so under a law covering plant pests.
BioGlow has already obtained a letter from the department saying that it will not need approval to release its glowing plants because they are not plant pests, and are not made using plant pests. The hobbyist project hopes to get the same exemption.