Controversial Crop

08.18.13

Plants That Glow in the Dark Spark Heated Debate

Kickstarter has backed away from crowdfunding genetically modified organisms that can be released from the lab, but the debate over who gets to grow what continues to rage. By Josh Dzieza.

Late last month, the crowdfunding site Kickstarter quietly amended its rules. Genetically modified organisms joined alcohol, drugs, and firearms on the list of things people aren’t allowed to give donors as a reward for funding their projects.

Kickstarter initially offered no explanation for the change, but everyone knew what project prompted the rule change. This spring, a group of bioengineers posted a plan to genetically engineer a glowing plant and offered anyone who donated $40 or more their own packet of seeds. The fundraising effort was an immediate success. “Holy Moley! My dreams of having a greenhouse rose garden/glowing Avatar-like wonderland will soon be realized!!” read a typical comment on the project, which soon rocketed to almost half a million dollars, far surpassing its goal of $65,000. To some citizen scientists, it seemed like the glowing plant team had hit upon a way to fund bioengineering projects without winning federal grants or soliciting venture capital investment.

Others were less excited. The environmental watchdog ETC Group (Erosion, Technology and Concentration) petitioned Kickstarter and the USDA to stop the project, warning that it would lead to the “widespread, random and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds,” which “poses real world risks to the environment.” ETC started its own counter-crowdfunding effort, or “kickstopper,” on Kickstarter’s rival, Indiegogo. “There’s a new biotech threat coming from Silicon Valley,” ETC warned on its Kickstopper page. “A private biotech company has hijacked that other crowd funding platform Kickstarter.com in a plan to release hundreds of thousands of glowing synthetic organisms made with an extreme genetic engineering technology called Synthetic Biology.” For $25, donors got a comic book ”telling the true story of the Project to stop the first-ever, intentional release of syn bio seeds.” That project ended up raising a little more than $2,000, but a related campaign on Avaaz.com, a petition site, got 14,000 signatures.

When Kickstarter finally elaborated on the rule change a week later, it said that the glowing plant project “sparked a debate in the scientific community about Kickstarter being used to release genetically modified organisms to the public.” The site had consulted scientists, cofounder Yancey Strickler said, and concluded that “the scientific community is unsettled on the best practices and ethics of releasing genetically modified organisms into the world.” The glowing plant donors will get their glowing seeds, but it’ll be the last project. In the future, he said, you can still have a genetic Kickstarter--you just wont' be able to give your donors the results. A Kickstarter spokesman told me the same thing--that they'd changed the rules to respect an ongoing debate over GMOs while still allowing genetic projects--but wouldn't elaborate on what the debate was. 

‘If you want to change the world, you have to go out of the lab.’

Allison Snow, an ecologist at Ohio State University in Columbus who does risk assessment on genetically modified plants, says glowing plants probably don't pose much of a threat, though it's possible that the glowing gene could persist in plants that could survive in the wild. Most of the researchers who've weighed in on the plants say the nightmare scenarios of invasive glowing weeds imagined by some opponents are far fetched. Unlike, say, the insect resistance many of our crops are already engineered to have, glowing in the dark doesn’t confer any sort of evolutionary advantage to a plant, so it’s unlikely that it would become invasive. In fact, bioluminescence is such a huge drain on energy that it'll be difficult to get plants to glow bright enough to notice.

Scientists first engineered a glowing tobacco plant as far back as 1986, but it needed to be sprayed with a special enzyme, and even then it was so dim that you could only see it in a pitch-black room after several minutes. In 2010, researchers successfully engineered a tobacco plant to glow on its own, and the head researcher on that project went on to found a private company called BioGlow that plans to sell glowing plants. That company has yet to unveil any finished products.

But Kickstarter is correct that there’s a debate. The last several years have seen an explosive growth in the number of backyard bioengineers, driven by a rapid drop in the cost of lab equipment. Independent bioengineers have done some impressive things, such as inventing a 3D printable centrifuge that costs about $50 rather than several thousand, and tinkering with bacteria-based batteries and algae biofuels.

Open source databases of genetic sequences and the computer programs that can arrange them promise to greatly expand what citizen scientists can do. It’s an exciting time to be working at one of the growing number of communal labs like Brooklyn’s Genspace or Mountain View’s BioCurious. Part of what makes DIY Bio exciting and such a potential hotbed of innovation is that the labs are totally unregulated, provided you don’t let your experiments out. But a lot of biohackers have world-changing aspirations, so eventually they do want to release their inventions to the public. How to balance laissez-faire lab experimentation with the responsible release of organisms into the wider world is an open question.

“It’s a defining moment for DIY Bio,” says Raymond McCauley, who cofounded BioCurious, the San Francisco community genetic lab where work on the glowing plants project began. McCauley is fairly moderate in his views on biohacking, which he says means that he “offends everybody.” On the one hand, he can wax as rosily as the most utopian biohacker, talking about how “the world would be a better place if more people, amateurs, school kids, hackers all have equal access that right now you can only get in rich universities or corporate labs.” At the same time, he’s aware that this technology is different from the tech sphere it so often borrows its “hacking” rhetoric from. “This isn’t like writing a computer program and saying see what happens,” he says. “It’s like making a computer program that will make a copy of itself, make a copy of the damn computer, and do it on its own in the wild.”

BioCurious, McCauley says, is a “fairly radical organization,” but it does have a few guidelines, one of which is not to let your results escape the lab. McCauley says he worked with the glowing plants team to modify the rules, offering to let them work there if, for example, they engineered their plants to require certain unusual nutrients to survive, making it impossible for them to spread in the wild. The glowing-plant team declined and started its own lab with the newfound Kickstarter cash.

LIke McCauley, the glowing plant team describes its project in idealistic terms, saying that glowing plants will help spread the word about synthetic biology, encouraging more people to begin their own projects. Eventually, they say, streets could be lit sustainably with glowing trees. (It’s also worth noting that Omri Amirav-Drory, one of the three members of the glowing plant team, is also the CEO of the start-up that sells genetic engineering software that’s being used to design the glowing plant, so he has a financial stake in DIY Bio evangelism.) “In the end if you want to change the world, you have to go out of the lab,” Amirav-Drory told me. “I think our project is a perfect first project for that.”

But when you go outside the lab, you risk not only the ire of anti-GMO groups like ETC, but also the attention of regulators. And according to Todd Kuiken, who studies biotech regulation at the Woodrow Wilson Center, the glowing plant team has already highlighted one potential regulatory loophole: the gene gun. A Reagan-era policy splits regulation of engineered organisms between several agencies--mostly the FDA, the EPA, and the USDA. Glowing plants aren't food, so it’s not the FDA’s job, and they aren’t pest-resistant, so the EPA isn’t concerned. USDA review, meanwhile, is triggered when bioengineers modify plants by infecting them with bacteria carrying the new genes. The bacterium is technically a pathogen, so the USDA looks at it. But the glowing plant team is using a device called a gene gun to fire gene-coated metal particles into the plant’s genome; there's no pathogen involved, so the USDA says it's outside its jurisdiction.

The glowing plant team isn’t the first group to use the gene gun workaround. Scotts Miracle Gro made a pest resistant Kentucky bluegrass in 2011 using the same technology. But the glowing plant team’s product, well, glows, and it’s crowdfunded, so more people noticed. Kuiken says he’s spoken with congressional staffers who, after hearing about the glowing plants, are talking about updating the regulatory framework, though given the current state of things on Capitol Hill, it probably won’t happen soon.

The gene gun is just one example of the ways the regulation hasn’t kept up with technology. The system is built on a sort of self-regulation--when Monsanto wants to release some new pest-resistant soybeans, it pays for its own tests and presents them to the EPA, FDA, and USDA, which check the company’s work and decides if further tests are needed. But this sort of partnership works best when you’re regulating big institutions that have an interest in not getting sued, damaging their brand, or angering regulators by trying to circumvent them. McCauley worries that amateur scientists, tinkering in their garage labs, don’t have as much invested, though he says hobbyist biohackers develop a professional ethic over time. The glowing plant team, for their part, posted an update last week saying they would voluntarily conduct studies similar to those the USDA would normally require.

Not that slapping stricter regulations on independent bioengineers is the answer. “This is a melting pot for startup experimentation,” says Evans. “People are looking to build careers out of this. To say startups should have additional regulations over corporations goes against a lot of what America stands for.” The current regulatory framework is “complex and opaque,” Evans says, and maybe it should be reformed, but the playing field should stay even.

Both McCauley and the glowing plant team worry that overzealous regulation could kill the nascent DIY Bio movement. DIY Bio has been slow to take off in Europe, for instance, because bioengineering regulations there are more burdensome. Antony Evans, one of three members of the glowing plant team, says that putting his group’s invention on the list with firearms and tobacco sends a message that bioengineering is bad and dangerous. McCauley worries that federal agencies could follow Kickstarter’s move, essentially saying the topic is too complicated, too hotly debated, and instituting a blanket ban or license rather than a more nuanced approach.

“We have to see as a society what are the best ways to regulate these technologies,” says McCauley, “but reacting out of fear or reacting too enthusiastically without considering what the actual dangers and benefits are, that’s really the worst thing we could do.”