2013-06-12

Supreme Court Decision Opens the Doors to A Boom in Synthetic Biology

A Kickstarter project to create eerily glowing vegetation is causing an uproar among critics of genetic modification, amid fears that they can’t be controlled.

Today’s Supreme Court ruling on the patenting of human genes was a boost to the field of synthetic biology. While human genes cannot be directly patented, the Court found, so-called complementary DNA can. This is DNA that is synthesized from the rNA in a genetic template and then cloned. The Court found that while naturally occurring DNA is not a human creation, "the lab technician unquestionably creates something new when cDNA is made. "
Synthetic biology relies on this synthesized cDNA.

Synthetic biology has been in the news lately for many reasons. Last Friday a unique Kickstarter campaign closed with almost $500,000 in donations (well over a $65,000 goal). As a result, three young DIY bio enthusiasts will distribute to almost 6,000 backers, who kicked in at least $40 each, packages of synthetically genetically engineered seeds that supposedly will allow each of them to grow bioluminescent house plants—Arabidopsis and eventually roses—at home.

Synthetic biology is an emerging and controversial scientific field that uses gene-writing software to compile DNA sequences, in this case, taken and modified from a firefly, that are then printed onto a blotter. The Glowing Plants project will use a "Gene Gun" to "fire" particles of gold coated in DNA into living cells. The use of the gun does an end run around USDA regulations that govern the use of viruses or other pathogens to modify DNA.

The project started at Singularity University. It’s designed as a public demonstration of the power of DIY Biology. And herein lies the problem for some critics. The potential applications of synthetic biology are to create immensely useful, lifesaving things, like a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, or a rice crop that needs as little water as a cactus, or an algae or other single-celled species that can produce near-perfect petroleum analogues from the sun or from toxic chemicals. These glowing plants don’t do any of that, and scientists and environmentalists question if the wow factor is really worth the risk.

Though the project is technically legal, its sheer hubris has kickstarted some serious from scientists and environmental groups that object to the release of these seeds to the public, with the chance that the DNA will get into the natural gene pool with unknown consequences. An anti-synthetic bio group called ETC has started a fundraising drive of their own, dubbed a "Kickstopper." "To date all [experts] have agreed that no synthetic organisms should yet be released into the environment without 'precaution,' 'prudent vigilance,' regulation, monitoring and other sober and sensible safeguards. Yet now the US government appears ready to avert its eyes," they write on their website.

And a on Avaaz.org has over 13,000 signatures. Other scientists object that it’s unlikely that the small plant will actually be able to process enough energy to visibly glow, even slightly or for a few seconds at a time.

The journal Nature notes that the Glowing Plants project is among other genetically modified, glow in the dark creature to be available to the public soon. A company called BioGlow in St. Louis also intends to sell glowing houseplants. Commercially available synthetically engineered animals, to say nothing of human cDNA, are still far away, but if they appear, they’ll be protected by intellectual property law.

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2 Comments

  • Nacho2100

    While contentions against synthetic organisms validly emphasize the need for higher vigilance I don't think of this project as useless. In fact, considering the application of glowing plants in low lit suburbia can effectively permit the illumination of areas that would otherwise be dangerous. 

  • Patrik D'haeseleer

    I think it is rather simplistic to claim that the recent Supreme Court ruling will have any effect on synthetic biology. The Myriad case was all about *naturally* occurring DNA sequences. Many synthetic biology projects either recode the genes for better expression in the host organism, or construct new pathways from existing genes. Both of those cases were already patentable anyway (and should be, under any reasonable interpretation of current patent law).

    The Myriad case mainly impacts situations where you test for a naturally occurring gene using PCR, as in the case of medical diagnostics. Nothing to do with synthetic biology.