[Source: linlam1 via YouTube]
[Source: linlam1 via YouTube]
With 35 days left in their Kickstarter campaign, the guys who want to light the way with glowing plants have raised more than $200,000, blowing away their initial goal of $65,000. And they’re not wasting any time resting on their laurels. I spoke with the project’s manager Antony Evans. He told me what the team has already set its sights beyond the user-friendly but unremarkable Arabidopsis. If the campaign raises more than $400,000, they’ll not only complete the Arabidopsis work, but bring illumination to the already beautiful rose as well.

Arabidopsis is a small flowering plant that’s a relative of mustard and cabbage. The team chose the plant because it’s easy to experiment with and carries minimal risk as far as accidentally spreading through the wild. Aside from giveaways through the campaign, however, people aren’t going to get their hands on a glowing Arabidopsis because it won’t be commercially available after it’s created. But then, even a glowing Arabidopsis starts to look commonplace after a while.

But a rose by any other…magnitude?

In trying to come up with something people would actually want, the team came up with a final list of three candidates: tobacco, petunia and a rose. They ruled out the tobacco plant – which has been made to glow by scientists in the eighties – because tobacco is big business. The risk for cross-contamination was something they didn’t want to take and Big Tobacco most likely wouldn’t.

But roses are safe in that regard, Evans assures me. While they do have seeds, the vast majority of rose farms are populated by cloning. And anyway, surprising your sweetheart with a tobacco plant probably won’t have the same effect.

As with Arabidopsis, the first step will be to simply figure out how to get the rose to glow its brightest. They’ll test the different promoters that control where in the rose luciferin, luciferase and other genes are made, and optimize metabolic pathways and gene copy numbers to get the brightest plant they can. To begin with, they’ll create a rose that glows entirely – stem, leaves, petals and all. With more resources, though, Evans says they’ll definitely try to target the genes to specific parts of the rose so that, say, only the iconic petals are illuminated.

The tobacco plant, at least in its glowing form, is actually quite lovely. But nothing beats a rose. [Source: Kickstarter]
The tobacco plant, at least in its glowing form, is actually quite lovely. But nothing beats a rose. [Source: Kickstarter]
To anticipate what must be on the minds of many readers, I asked Evans about adding colors to the rose. Unfortunately, that’s getting a little too far ahead for the moment. “The reason for not doing color is that it would reduce light output, there’d be an energy efficiency drop off.” He does, however, think it’s a great idea and coloring individual parts could be possible at some point in the future. “What I think would be really beautiful is to color veins, red veins on a blue leaf.”

And when might we expect the glowing bouquets? If they meet their stretch goals thorough the campaign they’ll hire an intern this summer who will work on optimizing the transformation technique, the method by which the DNA is inserted into the plant. They’ll do the prep work over the next 12 months to cultivate the roses and transform them, and then take another 6 to 12 months to optimize their techniques to get the rose glowing its brightest.

The short time of the campaign has already made for an extraordinary experience. Not only have the monetary contributions exceeded expectations, but intellectual as well. “The more we’re getting into this the more it’s apparent this is a radical new way to scientific research. Traditional research is done in an institution with patent protection. IP protection and patents slows progress because it reduces collaboration and makes it harder to build on the work of others. Our project, we don’t have a central body. It’s the public, they’re the ones who get excited. Because we’re not beholden to shareholders we can create a community.”

In a recent update on the project’s website Evans wrote about this new model he calls Radical Openness. Because they’re not beholden to shareholders but are crowdfunded, the project’s scientific developments will released open source as they’re made – DNA designs are already available.

Their collaborative, DIY Bio model benefits both parties. Normally research is done via a peer review process in which other researchers are the peers. With the Glowing Plant, the entire community is involved in “realtime peer review. Unlike in research where peer review is done after the work is done, we’re doing peer review while the work is going on.” That allows experts anywhere to critique their work. But also, Evans says, “it allows us to communicate and educate people who contribute to the project, to get people inspired to contribute the field as a whole. Transparency and openness is what made the internet so successful. This is a foundation on which we can achieve our bigger goals.”

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Sing...

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