Glowing Plant Crowdfunding On Kickstarter

Image via Glowing Plant

Imagine one day walking down a street lit by rows of trees rather than street lamps. Bioluminescence, the emission of light from a living organism, has fascinated humans since the beginning of time. Why do fireflies glow? What makes deep-sea animals produce light in areas where the sun’s rays never shine? Scientists eventually answered these questions, but now they hope to transfer bioluminescent qualities to other organisms, namely plants, using genetic engineering. Genome Compiler Corp., the firm behind the Glowing Plant project, plans to inject luciferase, an enzyme found in fireflies as well as some glowing bacteria and fungi into the DNA of a small plant called Arabidopsis, a member of the mustard family.

Inspired by fireflies… our team of Stanford-trained PhDs are using off-the-shelf methods to create real glowing plants in a do-it-yourself bio lab in California,” said project leader Antony Evans. “We live in a world that is generating too much carbon dioxide. Nature has figured out ways of creating energy that don’t require so much CO2 use, and what we really want to do is awaken people to the potential of that. Instead of having all these expensive street lights, why don’t we get plants?”

And the team doesn’t plan to keep its creation to itself, either. The Glowing Plant campaign was launched on crowdfunding site Kickstarter April 23 with a goal of $65,000. With 29 days remaining in the campaign, it has already garnered more than $271,000 in pledges from 4,733 backers. And it’s not just the novelty of the project attracting support. Backers pledging at least $40 will receive their own batch of glowing plant seeds in 2014. Plus, if the campaign reaches $400,000 in pledges, then backers who pledge $150 or more will also receive the next phase in the project, a glowing rose.

The Kickstarter project is by no means the first glowing plant produced by scientists. In 2008, a group from the University of California created a glowing tobacco plant using luciferase, and in 2010 researchers at the University of Cambridge made bacteria glow bright enough to read by in the dark. But the Glowing Plant project is the first to offer seeds to the public, something environmentalists are stringently against.

We object to this distribution with no oversight. It’s an irresponsible move,” Jim Thomas, Research Director of Montreal-based Action on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, told the Wall Street Journal.

In fact, Friends of the Earth US and Action on Erosion, Technology and Concentration wrote to the Genome Compiler asking that the seed shipment be blocked, stating it would cause “widespread, random, and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds” that pose “real world risks to the environment.

The groups fears aren’t totally unfounded. Introducing any foreign species into the environment has its risks as they may have few native competitors and can become invasive, outcompeting indigenous species for nutrients, space and light. The introduction of foreign species can also threaten native species with extinction through genetic pollution if the two are unintentionally hybridized. In fact, although the genetically-engineered seeds are legal to sell in the United States, they are illegal in Europe and cannot be shipped there, according to the Kickstarter campaign.

But Omri Amirav-Drory, CEO of Genome Compiler, says he will not take the seeds off of Kickstarter.

It’s legal, it’s ethical, it’s beautiful and it’s important and we’re not going to stop what we’re doing,” he told the Wall Street Journal. “You can always ask for 50 years of field tests, but that seems unreasonable. Nature is always making new stuff. Companies are constantly engineering new crops with resistance to pests.

In fact, the Glowing Plant team chose the Arabidopsis plant as its subject because it is unlikely to spread into the wild. It’s a non-native US plant, so there is little risk of cross-pollination, it doesn’t survive well in the wild, and it self-pollinates so birds and bees are less likely to spread its DNA.

Still, as cool as the idea of a glowing plant may be, it makes you wonder if spreading its seeds might not be some sort of Pandora’s Box. After all, remember what happened in “Jurassic Park?