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1.21 Gigawatts: Glowing Plants – Lighting the Path into the Future?

Glowing Plants

-Sarah Keartes

Just two weeks ago, in what they call “the first step in creating sustainable natural lighting” a team of Stanford scientists headed by Antony Evans, a Singularity University alumnus, launched the “Glowing Plant” project—the first ever synthetic biology proposal to hit kickstarter.

Inspired by fireflies and aquatic bioluminescence (think Life of Pi), the project aims to create glowing plants that could eventually replace electric or gas lighting. What’s incredible is that all of the technology required to jump-start the plant production already exists.

“What is innovative and exciting about this project is not so much new application of  technology—it is that these three guys [in a DIY science lab] are bringing synthetic biology into the mainstream,” Lisa Smolenska PhD Molecular Plant Virology told Flux.

“They are taking an idea and bringing it to the public—and the public is listening and playing their part in scientific development for their future. That is what’s cool about it,” she said.

“Glowing Plants” (GP) builds on research dating back to 1986. The process started with isolating and sequencing the Luciferase-luciferin gene, which codes for an enzyme that allows organisms like fireflies and bioluminescent bacteria to glow.

Now sequenced, the genetic information can be manipulated using software like “Genome Compiler” to make it more readable by the plant’s cells. The newly designed plant friendly code is “printed”—after  it is synthesized to the correct length, lasers are used to cut out and throw away any  codes  that do not perfectly match the design.  This new DNA will eventually be introduced into the plant using a Gene Gun. Initially, transforming the plant will be done using the Agrobacterium method:

“Our printed DNA will be inserted into a special type of bacteria which can insert its DNA into the plant. Flowers of the plant are then dipped into a solution containing the transformed bacteria. The bacteria injects our DNA into the cell nucleus of the flowers which pass it onto their seeds,” the team explains.

Gene Guns, computer programs making DNA—and printing copies? If this is all starting to scramble your brain, fear not. Think of it this way: Genome Compiler, which was founded by GP team member Omri Amirav-Drory, works by viewing biological genetic code much like binary computer code (made of ones and zeroes). The program is able to “design, debug, and compile” the code to make it readable by chromosomes and genomes (the software)  that run in living cells (the hardware).

“Living things are just another form of information technology,” they explain. “We can design living things the same way we can design computer code.”

Using similar techniques, the University of Cambridge 2010 iGem team was able to create modified E. Coli bacteria which produced enough light to read by, and in several colors. Their creation, cleverly dubbed “E. Glowli” set the benchmark for synthetic bioluminescence, one which GP hopes to eventually meet.

“It’s certainly feasible…can you make something that is brighter than what is occurring in nature? That is the grand challenge—for now the challenge is making something beautiful,” Harvard University Professor of Genetics George Church said in an interview.

By choosing to launch their project on kickstarter, the GP team is getting the public involved.

Through funding platforms like these “scientists can practice science without having to go to large, highly competitive funding bodies or corporations, and highly technical projects now have visibility to the general public,” Smolenska said.

The project soared past its initial $65,000 goal, and has now raised over $190,000 pledged by 3342 curious supporters (myself among them). The funds raised will be used to print DNA—a process that costs a minimum of twenty-five cents per base pair. Sounds cheap enough, right? Keep in mind that the sequences used for the project are approximately 10,000 base pairs long, and multiple sequences will be printed for testing.

Pledges of forty dollars or more are being rewarded with a batch of GP seeds, which will be sent out in late 2014.

Luciferase is not a pesticide or known toxin, and the GP team is taking precautions to ensure this project is “as safe as we can get.” Still, as with all genetic modification (GM) centered projects, some debate has risen regarding the ethical implications and ecological risks of introducing these plants—as what could happen remains unknown.

The Glowing Plants project has roots in the past and eyes on the future—building on what was started by those before them, and turning to those around them. Nanos gigantum humeris insidentes:  Dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants.

“What you’ll be getting is more than a glowing plant…the glowing plant is a symbol of the future, a symbol of sustainability, a symbol to inspire others to create new living things,” Evans said.

Want to grow your own glow? Watch the Kickstarter video!

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Image by Jay Salamandras.