Futuristic Johnny Appleseeds, a team of young Stanford-trained hobbyists are designing genetically modified, glow-in-the-dark plants they plan to send to many of the thousands of people who helped make it possible.
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 San Francisco 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. They met at Moffett Field's Singularity University, a program that connects entrepreneurs to new technologies.
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."
Opposition was so fierce that Kickstarter reversed its position, changing its rules to ban offering backers genetically modified organisms as rewards. It lumped them into the same banned category as alcohol, firearms and tobacco. The team already had its money but defended the project, saying that not all GMOs are equal nor should they all be lumped into one bucket. Gene-jumping between species is common in microorganisms; in higher organisms, like plants, it is less common.
And they say they are doing their own safety and environmental tests following government protocols. 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 in St. Louis. But safety concerns need consideration, he said. "Including a report of risk and benefits of a new product could become part of the review and evaluation process."
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 in Washington who studies the governance of synthetic biology and the do-it-yourself movement. But, he said, "The debate is about the introduction of synthetic plants into the environment without official evaluation .... The regulations are way behind the technology. We need a regulatory structure that is more flexible and adaptable, to move quickly as technology develops."
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.
"One of the most important things we have done with this project is triggered a debate about how this technology should be developed and released," they assert.
"The only limit is the imagination."
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.