For now, the gene-manipulation project is little more than a stunt, more peculiar than perilous.
“A rose that lights up your life. Or a glowing willow tree — that would be beautiful,” said tech entrepreneur Antony Evans, calling it “the first step in creating sustainable natural lighting.”
But while the project thrills some, it alarms others — and reveals how far bureaucracy lags behind biology, with decades-old regulations failing to keep pace with 21st-century innovations in genetic engineering. The plan to send thousands of seeds of a genetically engineered plant to many of the project’s donors could become the test case that challenges Washington, D.C., to review how the government evaluates the creation of life in the fast-moving new field of synthetic biology.
Because the glowing plant is not a food product, it is not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration. Nor is it governed by the Environmental Protection Agency, which has jurisdiction only over microorganisms. And the gene technique GlowingPlant uses exempts it from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s oversight of plant modifications. That’s because the agency focuses on processes, not products — and while it regulates the creation of a plant created by inserting DNA using bacteria, it does not regulate the “gene gun” approach that will be used by the team.
The team — Evans, Kyle Taylor and Omri Amirav-Drory — are improvisational biohackers, part of a movement called DIYbio, short for do-it-yourself biology.
Instead of inserting a gene for fluorescence with the conventional technique of using a bacteria to carry artificially assembled DNA into a host plant, they will use a “gene gun,” like a shotgun, to blast the plant with DNA-coated particles. Even the project’s funding is DIY. They didn’t plead their case to venture capitalists or the federal government. Instead, they went directly to the public through the online project-fundraiser site Kickstarter — gathering $484,013 dollars from nearly 8,433 donors in just a few weeks.
In gratitude, they promised many of their supporters glowing-plant seed packets, with growing instructions. GlowingPlant.com aims to start shipping its luminescent plant seeds and seedlings by next summer. That set off alarms. People concerned with the unfettered spread of engineered organisms tried to shut down the project. The environmental organization ETC Group worries that the luminous plants — based on a European weed — will cross with conventional plants of the same species, disrupting wild ecosystems. It started a “Kickstopper” campaign to raise cash to oppose the project.
“Regulations need to be amended to address the particular issues raised by synthetic biology and this particular project,” said Pat Mooney, ETC Group’s executive director.
The Center for Food Safety agrees that a glow-in-the-dark plant is different from bioengineered corn and soy and no threat to the food supply.
“But it is just stupid,” said Center science policy analyst Bill Freese. “This is not a matter that should be made light of to make the point that regulations are not necessary.”
A renowned plant pathologist saw little danger ahead.
“It is highly unlikely that the product has any environmental risk,” given that the producers have described their studies to examine the relevant questions/issues that are considered by the USDA and the EPA,” said Roger Beachy, of Washington University.
Another expert saw an ideal test case. GlowingPlant has not done anything wrong, said Todd Kuiken, a senior research associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center who studies the governance of synthetic biology and the do-it-yourself movement.
GlowingPlant’s next big step is scientific, not regulatory. It has ordered the necessary DNA and is busy setting up labs in San Francisco. But their goal is to create something far more important than a glowing plant.
“The only limit is the imagination,” they assert.
— By Lisa M. Krieger