In April, a tiny San Francisco start-up launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $65,000 to create bioluminescent mustard plants. If the project were fully funded, anyone who contributed $40 or more would receive a packet of seeds and full instructions for growing their own glowing plant.
Offer not valid in Europe.
In the U.S., however, Glowing Plant (the company) insists that this is entirely legal. It would be a mass distribution of what they claim will be the second ever synthetic organism, after Craig Venter's bacterium, but no law prevents it. The basis of this is that they will be using gene-gun technology rather than viral technology to introduce the synthetic gene to the plant's DNA, which may be less efficient but evades USDA regulations.
Within a week they had more than doubled the original target and set a "stretch goal" of $400,000 to extend the project to include glowing roses. They have met that goal, and more, with over 7,500 backers, mostly pledging in the "$40 or more" range. This project is a go. First mustard, then roses - then glowing biological streetlights! (Why would you even want to turn them off, haven't you seen Avatar?)
To be clear, they are proposing to release somewhere between 5,000 and half a million experimentally modified plants to anyone with $40 who asks for them, at completely unknown sites, with absolutely no oversight or reporting requirement. Would any responsible lab really do this? Really?
Technologically, the immediate effort is a plausible outgrowth of previous research; both Arabidopsis plants and fluorescence genes have been lab staples for years. The species is an experimental subject, the genes frequently used as insertion markers (usually requiring special light to be visible). Indeed, the "bio artist" Eduardo Kac exhibited a glowing rabbit in 2000.
What's most novel about the current effort is social. Not just the crowd sourced funding, but the explicit reliance on the "wow" factor, the blithe libertarian disregard of regulatory authority (though they are certainly aware of and watching for reaction), and the connections with new-model capitalism and social media. That the company's website is a blog may be the least up-to-date aspect of the operation: The hip financial kids don't even use email, they're now on Yammer, HipChat and Tracker.
Of course this is, in several senses, a stunt. Indeed, Glowing Plants has hired a public relations company, Command Partners, which has sent emails to possible media contacts. There have been articles in the New York Times, Time, and other mainstream publications; they may not have been required for the fundraising (its success was a regular story hook) but they certainly worked to hype synthetic biology in general. And that may have been the most important goal, at least to some of the participants.
One of the three principals of Glowing Plant is Omri Amirav-Drory, the founder and CEO of Genome Compiler, whose technology is intrinsic to the process. Genome Compiler is itself a small company with big goals that has at least $3 million behind it, according to TechCrunch, largely from Autodesk. The other Glowing Plant founders are Antony Evans, who has a background as a management consultant with Bain and Company among others, and Kyle Taylor, a Stanford-credentialed molecular biologist.
Also involved, at least technologically, is Cambrian Genomics, headed by Austen Heinz (Seoul National University; Trinity College, Duke), a young entrepreneur who has a vision of mass production and a knack for partners. The company was co-founded by, among others, George Church (synthetic biologist extraordinaire), Reese Jones (Silicon Valley veteran, venture capitalist) and John Mulligan (founder of Blue Heron Biotechnology, which worked on Venter's bacterium). Cambrian has at least one modest National Science Foundation grant, and backing from Founders Fund, Felicis Ventures and Draper Associates; in April it was said to have several million in funding "lined up."
This is not 1970 - these guys are not barefoot hippies, and they are certainly not selling a VW bus or H-P calculator to buy circuit boards. They do, however, have something in common with the pioneers of personal computing: They don't know what will come of their technology, but they think it will be wonderful.
Back in the days before VisiCalc and Lotus - let alone graphic interfaces and the web - personal computers were a hard sell. What were you going to do with them, balance your checkbook? Type in your recipes? (It wasn't quite clear whether people were laughing with or at those who made such projections.) Actually, we're now checking our bank accounts directly and searching online for exotic ways to prepare food. Did Jobs and Gates and the rest know that? Not exactly, but they had an inkling.
That's where Drory, Heinz and company think they are. Just listen to them on YouTube doing blue-sky speculation. Drory floated the idea of "glowing oaks" a year ago, so the mustard and roses are concessions to some kind of practicality. Heinz talks blithely about bio-fabbed terraformed environments on Mars, right after discussing synthetic cancer treatments in people and right before mentioning brain-computer interfaces and reviving extinct mammoths. Don't focus on the specifics: These guys are convinced they will change the world.
And they might, just not necessarily for the better. Over 5,000 individuals are due to receive 50-100 mustard seeds each in May or June 2014, and nearly 500 are set to get an actual plant, and a rose 6-12 months later. One rich guy (at least; five at most) will have his name inscribed, in DNA, into the plant's genome itself! And then there's other pledge-drive premiums, ranging from vials of DNA with your personalized Tweet-length message ($500) to T-shirts ($25) and stickers (for a low, low $5, plus $2 if international shipping is required).
The glowing plant release may be, as George Church suggests, as safe as one of these experiments is likely to get. (Suddenly it becomes a feature rather than a bug that the genetic modification might weaken the new species, so it would be unlikely to drive the wild type to extinction.) But how safe is that, really? There have been documented instances of genetically modified Arabidopsis thaliana outcrossing with wild-type plants, but the sales pitch has no mention of small-scale experimental release, no caveats, and no follow-up. This is irresponsible at best, and certainly ought to be illegal.
Federal laws and regulations about biotechnology are notoriously poorly defined. The classic example is the FDA stepping in to shut down a purported Raelian human cloning lab in 2001 by asserting jurisdiction over biological products, drugs and devices. None of those obviously cover reproductive cloning, but virtually everyone wanted the Raelians stopped, so there we are. In this case, however, there is a significant lobby looking to exploit loopholes, and the sensible response would be to close them.
Moreover, it's by no means clear that the public thinks that any of this is so cool. A small subset of people obviously did respond to the Kickstarter campaign, but then small subsets of people support almost anything. Search for "glowing plants" on YouTube and the numbers are not particularly impressive - the top for hits is 32,000 for one news report, two of the next three predate this effort, and by then the numbers are down to four figures and rapidly sink to three. Dolly the sheep, a source of genuine public fascination, gets half a million.
The proponents are selling this concept as magnificent, inevitable, energy-efficient and ultimately democratic. It's hard to avoid the suspicion that they'd call it a nutritious time-saver that will guarantee your health, improve your sex life, extend your lifespan and secure your retirement savings if that would move more product, but the "democratic" claim deserves some attention.
"Democratizing Creation" is the title of a talk Heinz gave last year that is still at the front of his website, and also of a discussion that featured both Heinz and Drory. It's a concept that is widespread among synthetic biology advocates, and clearly seems to build on the "garage start" history of Hewlett-Packard, Apple and others. There is an attraction to it, in the simplistic anarcho-libertarian style. But it's fundamentally flawed. Even on its own terms, it atomizes society into individual components, and thereby eliminates the very concept of social consensus and deliberate decision-making.
In that vacuum of responsibility, a few people can become very rich. To them, that's a feature; to the rest of us, it's a bug.
Pete Shanks is an author and activist who blogs regularly at Biopolitical Times.