"Democratizing Creation" with Synthetic Biology and Glowing Plants

Posted by Pete Shanks on June 27th, 2013

A glowing plant

In April, what appeared to be a tiny San Francisco start-up called Glowing Plant launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $65,000 to create luminescent mustard plants. Its pitch was that anyone who contributed $40 or more would receive a packet of seeds and full instructions for growing their own glowing plant. For $150, you would get the plant itself. Also for sale, of course, are T-shirts and stickers and vases and planters and even a photo book.

The promoters blew past their initial goal in a few days, and added further premiums, in the form of glowing roses. They haven't done the engineering work yet, for either mustard or roses, but it seems technically plausible. (The image above, used in their publicity, is of a tobacco plant.) By June 7, the funding deadline, they had raised $484,013 from more than 5000 people.

It will take them a year or so to complete the project, they estimate. But then they threaten to release somewhere between 5000 and half a million experimentally modified plants to completely unknown sites, with absolutely no oversight or reporting requirement. This, they claim, is legal.

For much more detail, see my article in the newly published issue of GeneWatch. As usual, there's lots more to read there too, with the overarching theme being "Genetics Education."

One goal of the project was clearly to encourage publicity, and it certainly succeeded in that. Among the outlets that published articles just since I wrote that piece three weeks ago were Nature News, Scientific American, New Scientist, Mother Jones, and the Guardian, as well as the announcement of a "KickStopper" campaign by Jim Thomas of the ETC Group at Huff Post.

Glowing Plant is not (just) a stunt. The principals have close ties to Genome Compiler and Cambrian Genomics, which in turn are linked to major funding, in the form of Silicon Valley venture capital. Some serious scientists are also involved: George Church endorsed Glowing Plant and co-founded Cambrian with, among others, John Mulligan of Blue Heron Biotechnology, which worked on Craig Venter's synthetic bacterium project.

Glowing Plant and Genome Compiler's Omri Amirav-Drory and Austen Heinz of Cambrian like to talk about "democratizing creation" and to position themselves as champions of the little guy. But it looks as though they hope to jump-start commercial synthetic biology and perhaps to become the billionaires of what they see as the coming Synthetic Biology revolution. They bear watching, and this project is just crying out for proper regulation.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

Posted in Biotech & Pharma, Hybrids & Chimeras, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Synthetic Biology, US Federal


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