Glowing Plant Gets Green Light from Fan Funding

By inserting DNA from fireflies, the team hopes to one day replace street lamps with bioluminescent trees

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Three biotechnology entrepreneurs have come up with a bright idea that has attracted a wealth of interest and backing on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, which allows people to donate money directly to projects they want to help finance.

The brainchild of synthetic biologist Omri Amirav-Drory, plant scientist Kyle Taylor and project leader Antony Evans, the Glowing Plants initiative aims to create a glow-in-the-dark plant using synthetic biology techniques that could possibly replace traditional lighting  with the tantalizing prospect of one day creating glow-in-the-dark trees to replace street lights.

(MORE: The Risks and Rewards of Synthetic Biology)

Their pitch seems to have resonated well with funders: with less than a month to go before it reaches its final funding date on Kickstarter, nearly 5000 backers have contributed some $280,000 – far surpassing the initial $65,000 goal.

Admittedly, the techniques used to realize their idea are not original: The first bioluminescent plant was developed in 1986. In 2003, a Taiwanese scientist developed a way to make otherwise colorless rice fish appear neon green using a protein from jellyfish. In the promotional video on its Kickstarter page, Evans explains that they are using “off the shelf methods to create real glowing plants in a do-it-yourself biolab in California.”

Specifically, the Glowing Plants team will use the fluorescent gene found in fireflies, then compile its DNA sequence using a DNA-writing software called Genome Compiler. Once the money from the Kickstarter campaign is used to print the DNA, Evans and his colleagues will transplant the sequence into their prototype plant, the small weed Arabidopsis thaliana, using a bacteria that can insert its DNA into the cell nucleus of the plants flowers. This, in turn, will enable future plants grown from the genetically modified plant’s seeds to glow.

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Although it has been a run-away success on Kickstarter, the project is not without its snags and doubters. Theo Sanderson, a scientist on the University of Cambridge team that created bioluminescent bacteria in 2010, expressed concerns about the new project on his blog:

“What has disappointed me has been the lack of discussion as to what the team actually plan to do with the funds raised, and whether the science stacks up.”

There are environmental concerns too: the New York Times reports that both Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group have written to Kickstarter and the U.S. Agriculture Department in an attempt to shut down what they consider a “controversial and risky” project that “will likely result in widespread, random and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds.” Evans responded in an interview to the Times that his team is aware of the controversy and wants to use part of the funds raised to establish a policy framework for future DIY biology projects.

The developers also acknowledge that they are not likely to get things right on their first try. Even though the first bioluminescent plant was created in 1986, researchers haven’t had much success in creating self-sufficient glowing plants since then. Nonetheless, the project has some prominent backers, including George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, who endorsed the project with the argument that “even a weakly glowing flower would be a great icon.”

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