2013-05-07

Glowing Plants: Inside The First Synthetic Biology Kickstarter Campaign

Right now, it’s just a fun way to get a conversation piece for your house, but the popular crowdfunding project of the moment is just the beginning of a new branch of science with exciting implications.

The next generation of programmers aren’t writing iPhone apps; they’re engineering life. DIY synthetic biology is no longer a fringe hobby--there are synthetic bio hackerspaces (the one closest to me boasts everything from a protein purification system to gel electrophoresis), conferences, and now the first-ever synthetic biology Kickstarter campaign, which has raised over $172,000 at the time of writing, with 37 days to go.

Based on research from the University of Cambridge and the State University of New York, the Glowing Plants campaign promises backers that they’ll receive seeds to grow their own glowing Arabidopsis plants at home. If the campaign reaches its $400,000 stretch goal, glowing rose plants will also become available.

"We wanted to test the idea of whether there is demand for synthetic biology projects," explains project co-founder Antony Evans. "People are fundamentally excited and enthusiastic about synthetic biology." That much is clear enough from the thousands of backers supporting the campaign.

Evans has a background in business and mathematics, but his co-creators are biologists. Here’s the method they came up with for creating glowing plants. First, the team downloads the genes for luciferin and luciferase into a Genome Compiler (these genes allow certain deep water marine organisms to glow). "We rewire the DNA so it produces the same proteins but in a way that’s readable by plants," says Evans. The DNA sequences are then sent off to DNA printing company Cambrian Genomics, which has developed a relatively low-cost laser printing system. Those sequences are printed, put on a little spot of paper ("Like a blotter," explains Evans), and mailed back to the team. The Glowing Plants creators then stick the DNA into Arabidopsis plants via two methods.

The first method uses agrobacterium--a kind of bacterium that injects its DNA into plants and causes a type of plant cancer (the engineered version used by the team doesn’t cause the cancer). Evans explains: "We take the DNA, put it into the bacteria, mix it in the right proportions, dip the flowers of our plant into that bacteria solution, and that bacteria will insert its DNA into the flowers of the plant." When the plant produces seeds, they will grow up with the DNA of a glowing plant.

This is a reliable method--one that the Glowing Plants team is using for prototyping. But agrobacterium is considered a plant pest, so releasing the seeds would require a regulatory notice from USDA/APHIS. So the team is using a second method for mass production that goes around the regulations.

Kickstarter backers will get seeds created using particle bombardment. Gold nano-particles coated with a DNA construct developed by the team are fired at plant cells at a high-velocity. A small number of those particles make it into the Arabidopsis plant cells, where they’re absorbed into the plant chromosomes.

Arabidopsis was chosen for a number of reasons: it’s not native to the U.S., so there is little risk of cross-pollination; it doesn’t survive well in the wild (again, reducing risk of cross-pollination), it self-pollinates, and up until recently, it was thought to have the shortest genome of any plant. That means the protocols for Arabidopsis plant transformation work are well-established. Roses have also been studied extensively, and they carry little risk of cross-pollination, according to Evans.

"We’re taking a fundamentally open approach to this," says Evans. "We’re publishing our results as we go, and updating our lab notebook online. We are fully expecting that someone will take our DNA construct and come up with some other [glowing] plant." The problem there is that someone could select a plant that does easily cross-pollinate--and then the glowing plants could spread to the wild. That’s the kind of ethical quandary that the DIY synthetic biology community of the near future will have to deal with.

In the meantime, Evans and his team plan on spending the next year on the campaign. Eventually, Evans imagines that the Glowing Plants creators will work on bigger glowing plant species, so one day they could even be used for street lighting.

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