In what they call the “first step in creating sustainable natural lighting,” a group of innovators coming out of Singularity University have launched a Kickstarter campaign to create glowing plants. Admittedly the idea of replacing street lamps with glowing foliage will seem far-fetched to many. But after just three days the campaign has gone viral, already having surpassed its goal of $65,000.
The core team includes Omri Amirav-Drory, a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and founder of the gene building startup Genome Compiler, a Singularity University company coming out of the rapidly expanding Singularity Labs. Also part of the core team are Senstore co-founder Antony Evans, and Kyle Taylor, a biologist who teaches Intro to Molecular and Cell Biology at the biohacker space BioCurious. The three have now joined forces at Singularity University. I got a chance to speak with Evans, the group's Project Manager, and ask him about the groups' exciting and eccentric vision.
To create the glowing plants, the team will first generate modified genes with the Genome Compiler software, then insert them into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to mustard and cabbage (they make sure to point out that the plant is not edible). The main gene, luciferase, is the same one that makes fireflies light up the night.
Evans acknowledges that this isn’t the first time luciferase has been used to create glowing plants. But to create plants bright enough to light our way will take a lot of optimizing. The feature that they’ve already worked out is modifying the luciferase gene so that it recycles, as lots of the enzyme will be needed to make the plant sufficiently bright.
With Genome Compiler they’re able to design and print DNA, to make new sequences from scratch. But even while the price of DNA synthesis drops, costs can mount quickly, especially when you’re troubleshooting. At the time of this writing, the Kickstarter campaign had raised over $64,000 – less than a thousand shy of their goal after just three days. The more money the group gets, the more genes they’ll be able to print and test.
To create a system that people can experiment with, they had to start simple. If you’ve seen Arabidopsis you know it’s more suited to light a dinner table than a sidewalk. “We chose it for good reasons, it’s about as safe as it gets. It’s a winter plant that won’t do well in direct sunlight, so it won't go crazy [by spreading uncontrollably]. Two, it’s about as good as it gets as a model organism. Because it has such a small genome its metabolic pathways have been completely mapped. What I would really like to do one day is a willow tree, but genetically engineering trees is pushing the boundaries of science that we’re not ready for.”
While the genetics will have to be worked out, for Arabidopsis and willow trees or whatever comes after, Evans said the toughest part about getting the project going was “dealing with the ethics and regulatory questions. Science in some ways is the easy part. There isn’t a lot of precedent for what we’re doing. It took a long time to get to a consensus [with regulatory bodies] on that.”
Want to support the cause, or maybe just have the only house on the block with a glowing yard? People from the US who back with $40 or more will be sent seeds (50 to 100) of their own so they can cultivate the glowing crop in their own backyard. They emphasize that the seeds will never be sold commercially, so the only chance ever to get the seeds is through Kickstarter. Those interested can follow them on twitter or Facebook or follow developments on their blog. And anyone in the Sunnyvale, CA area can meet up with the team at the Bioluminesence Community meetups at BioCurious Monday evenings.
Evans acknowledged that they’ve encountered a fair amount of skepticism, but the team hopes to convert those skeptics. “More than lighting streets it’s about educating and inspiring the public – it’s not as dangerous as people think. We want to put a beautiful plant in their hands and show them it’s useful and safe.” And for those who are interested, the team plans on publishing a paper so that others can learn from their trial-and-error and won’t have to reinvent the wheel. “The plant is the sexy part, but if we can establish guidelines, I think that might be the more important part.”
The funds raised with the campaign are just the beginning. The real resource, Evans tells me, is people. “Bigger than the light itself, if we can get people to invest their time, being creative, building an ecosystem, then they can get together to try things and build things. I know it sounds cheesy, but I think of the light of the plant as ‘lighting the way.’ I want kids to see it and think, ‘I can do that,’ go down to the lab and start coming up with things. And that’s where the real innovation will come from, because they’ll come up with things we can’t.”
Like the campaign, Evans hopes the plants will eventually grow into something beyond the original vision. Plants are exquisitely sensitive to their environment and respond to minute changes in air, temperature, light. “You could modify the plants for all kinds of sensing applications,” he says. “I firmly believe that this is something that’s going to revolutionize our society. With this technology we have a lot of tools that can solve a lot of humanity’s problems. We're limited only by our imagination.”