How many do-it-yourself bioengineering enthusiasts does it take to change a light bulb? It seems 8 433 is the right number. That’s how many individuals backed the Glowing Plant Project on the crowdfunding Web site, Kickstarter, earlier this year. If this sounds counterintuitive, read on…
Spearheaded by two biologists and a former Bain & Company management consultant, the Glowing Plant Project has at least two goals. Long-term: creating trees that glow so powerfully through bioluminescence that they can function as street lights. Short-term: promoting grassroots innovation within the realm of synthetic biology. You no longer have to be Monsanto to hack Mother Nature.
The quest for irrigatable illumination has been going on since the mid-1980s, when researchers first successfully transplanted a gene present in fireflies into tobacco plants. By now you’d expect to see phosphorescent Marlboros casting an eerie glow in what few dive bars still allow smoking, but progress has been slow.
Things sped up last year after former Bain consultant Antony Evans watched biologist Omri Amirav-Drory give a presentation on the possibilities of using living organisms to produce energy, fuel, plastics and fertilisers. Evans was inspired by Amirav-Drory’s suggestion that armchair tinkerers, utilising sophisticated but easy-to-use software and a “biological app store”, might one day assemble the genetic material for producing a “renewable, self-assembled, solar-powered, sustainable street lamp” – in other words, a bioluminescent oak tree.
Bioluminescence – the production and emission of light by a living organism – is the overarching concept of the Glowing Plant Project, whose team members are essentially injecting flowering plants with genes for bioluminescence. The approach can be divided into three basic steps: design, print and transform. The design phase consists of creating the DNA sequence of the first glowing plant using a software called Genome Compiler. The print phase includes printing the DNA at Cambrian Genomics, the first hardware/system for laser printing DNA. Lastly, the transform phase consists of transforming that custom DNA into the target plant in the Glowing Plant Lab in California. The team hopes to then ship glowing plant seeds to those who support their cause, allowing for a more hands-on experience with the new technology and its mass reproduction.
“The Glowing Plant is a symbol of the future, a symbol of sustainability and a symbol to inspire others to create new, living things,” says project leader Antony Evans. Inspired by fireflies and aquatic bioluminescence, Evans calls these methods “off-the-shelf” and old news in the biological world; the ends to which these methods are being utilized, however, might be revolutionary.
Earlier attempts to make a self-sustainable and vibrantly-glowing plant have been rather unsuccessful, but with the necessary funding, Glowing Plant believes it can eventually create a product that will forever change the concept of lighting. Instead of consuming huge amounts of limited energy and producing as much carbon dioxide as cars, glowing plant technology could produce its own energy and oxygen, impacting the Earth in a positive way. No longer inorganic and inefficient, lights could one day be just as alive as we are, further blurring the line between nature and technology in a new and exciting way.