A fundraising campaign for a DIY biology project to genetically engineer “sustainable natural lighting” was going gangbusters on Kickstarter. And that was before it was featured on page B1 of the New York Times today.
Two weeks into a six-week crowdfunding effort, the Glowing Plants project, has exceeded its $65,000 goal by more than $200,000. Cheerleading from several industry leaders has no doubt been influential. Synthetic biology guru George Church, whose photo can be seen tacked to a wall in the pitch video, touts the project in a testimonial on the Kickstarter page, Singularity University faculty Andrew Hessel, and BoingBoing editor Corey Doctorow. X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis calls the project, which promises to insert bioluminescent genes into plants with the ultimate goal of creating streetlight trees and houseplant lamps, “the COOLEST Kickstarter campaign ever!”
But the Times reports that not all of the attention has been supportive:
Two environmental organizations, Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group, have written to Kickstarter and to the Agriculture Department, which regulates genetically modified crops, in an effort 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.
What’s all the fuss about? The Glowing Plants three-man core team—comprised of a Stanford Fulbright postdoc scholar who founded the genetic engineering company Genome Compiler; a Stanford cell biology PhD who teaches DIY biology at the BioCurious public lab; and a former Bain & Company employee with an INSEAD MBA—explains its mission this way:
We are using Synthetic Biology techniques and Genome Compiler’s software to insert bioluminescence genes into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant and member of the mustard family, to make a plant that visibly glows in the dark (it is inedible). Funds raised will be used to print the DNA sequences we have designed using Genome Compiler and to transform the plants by inserting these sequences into the plant and then growing the resultant plant in the lab.
And the reward for anyone who pledges at least $40 to the project will be a shipment of the inedible bioluminescent mustard seeds. While the Times points out that inserting bioluminescence genes into creatures that don’t normally glow has been done before, it reports that the protesting organizations consider this project to be “perhaps the ‘first-ever intentional environmental release of an avowedly ‘synthetic biology’ organism anywhere in the world’.”
The DIY scientists aren’t brushing off those concerns. In addition to exploring energy-efficient lighting, the project leaders say they have a mission to promote education and discussion about synthetic biology policy. According to the Times, they will likely succeed on that front:
Todd Kuiken, senior research associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, who has been studying the governance of both synthetic biology and the do-it-yourself movement, said the glowing plant project was an ideal test case.
“It exposes the gaps and holes in the regulatory structure, while it is, I would argue, a safe product in the grand scheme of things,” Dr. Kuiken said. “A serious look needs to be taken at the regulatory system to see if it can handle the questions synthetic biology is going to raise.”