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Glowing plants: a cool idea, or terrible one?

Glowing plants: a cool idea, or terrible one?

Posting in Environment

A Kickstarter campaign could release hundreds of thousands of synthetic biological weeds across the United States -- and so far, the government is doing nothing about it.

“What if we used trees to light our streets instead of electric street lamps?” starts the Glowing Plant Kickstarter campaign video.

The pitch, launched April 23, continues, “Our way of life is unsustainable. Lighting creates as much CO2 as cars,” and then describes how its “Stanford-trained PhDs” used synthetic biology to create a weed, Arabidopsis thaliana, that faintly glows in the dark. Along with images from the film “Avatar,” the video finishes with Glowing Plant project manager Antony Evans asking potential backers to “demonstrate their commitment to a more sustainable future.” For $40 or more, 8,000 backers of the project will each receive 50 to 100 seeds next year.

Unless, that is, some environmental groups -- claiming that the project will set a precedent that could have far-reaching environmental ramifications -- manage to stop it.

Before going any further, let’s define genetic engineering and synthetic biology. With the former, you take genes from one organism and insert them into another organism. With the latter, which is newer technology, you design genes on a computer and put them into an organism, thereby creating DNA that has never before existed in nature.

Evans says Glowing Plant has two goals: “The first is to educate and inspire people about the capabilities of the technology and to start a discussion around it and to get people working on it. The second is a long-term vision to create glowing trees that could replace street lamps.”

But protest groups such as ETC Group and Friends of the Earth say the project sets a dangerous precedent. While no one knows exactly what kind of danger a glowing Arabidopsis poses to the environment or human health, if any, they say that is precisely their point.

Jim Thomas, research director for ETC Group, an international technology watchdog, says Glowing Plant will be the first environmental release of a synthetic biological organism -- and that it will be conducted without any oversight. “What’s kind of crazy about this project is that not only are they going to release an organism produced by synthetic biology, but they’re going to release it randomly, hundreds of thousands of seeds -- unmonitored, uncontrolled, unregulated. It’s absolutely the worst way to begin an environmental release of a synthetic biological organism,” he says.

Dr. Allison Snow, an ecologist at Ohio State University, says, “Anytime you have an engineered plant and you put it out in nature, there’s a regulatory process that nearly every country goes though to say, ‘This is the novel gene, this is what it does, this is why we think it’s safe,’ and we don’t have that information yet for this project.”

So, how is Glowing Plant getting around this process? Actually, there aren’t regulations that cover it. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has mostly regulated genetically modified crops under plant pest laws; many genetically modified organisms are created with agrobacteria that inserts the genes into the plant, and agrobacteria is a type of plant pest.

Glowing Plant, however, isn’t using agrobacteria. On its Kickstarter page, the group explains, “Once we have proven the designs work [using agrobacteria], we will then insert the same gene sequence into the plant using a gene gun. This is more complicated, as there's a risk the gene sequence gets scrambled, but the result will be unregulated by the USDA and thus suitable for release.”

Protest groups have contacted Kickstarter, which declined to comment for this story, and APHIS, which told SmartPlanet, “Regarding synthetic biologics, if they do not pose a plant risk, APHIS does not regulate it and as such cannot comment further.”

Evans emphasizes that what makes Glowing Plant special is not the science, but the crowdfunding aspect. “[Glowing Plants is] the first project to be done with Kickstarter funding in a do-it-yourself biology lab. It’s not some radical new approach to science.”

Todd Kuiken, a senior science and technology innovation associate at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars, called Glowing Plant “an ideal stress test” of current regulations for biotechnology, which, since the 1980s, have been grafted onto existing laws, instead of being drawn up anew.

Noting that Scotts Miracle-Gro's genetically engineered Kentucky Bluegrass also fell out of the USDA's regulatory purview, he says: “[Glowing Plant] does set a precedent, where you can do this and release it and no one is evaluating it. And that is a concern that needs to be examined. What are the questions we need to be concerned about when we release products or plants using synthetic biology or traditional gene transfer techniques into the environment?”

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Laura Shin

Features Editor

Laura Shin has been published in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Los Angeles Times, and is currently a contributor at Forbes. Previously, she worked at Newsweek, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and LearnVest. She holds degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure