The luminescent plants of Avatar could become a reality. This gripping and eerie story is a glimpse into the quick evolution of synthetic biology.
EVANS: We take some genes that we’ve sourced from marine bacteria called Vibrio fischeri. We rejiggered those genes using some clever software that we downloaded from the Internet. And then we synthesized, i.e. we print the design that we made on the computer. We put that into a plant, and when we grow up the plant it glows in the dark.
CRISTINA: So what has happened in this lab?
EVANS: This is the lab where we are engineering some new DNA that we’ve designed on a computer and printed and put into a plant that makes the plant glow in the dark, real natural lighting without any electricity. In the wild Vibrio fischeri has a symbiotic relationship with squids and some other organisms. It helps the squid conceal itself by having a light pocket underneath it that stops the squids shadow from scaring prey when it’s hunting under a fool moon.
C: How did you fund the project?
E: Yeah, that’s probably the most interesting, novel thing we did at the beginning of the project anyway. You know, we realized the potential of growing plants as a consumer product and so we turned to Kickstarter. And Kickstarter is a crowdfunding platform in the United States that you put up a cool, financing project; and if people believe in your dream and your vision then they support it. We raised just under a half million dollars, $484,000.
C: What kind of plant are you using?
E: We’re working on Arabidopsis. It’s quite well organized, you know. So it became a model organism for scientists to study. As a result, there’s more data accumulated on the genetic structure, the metabolic pathways, in Arabidopsis than for any other plant.
C: Does it harm the plant?
E: I kind of think of the example as like if someone gave you lead boots, and asked you to walk around all day. Does it harm it? No, but it definitely will have some fitness impact on the plant.
C: What would it do to its reproductive life cycle?
E: Nothing; no, the plant is healthy and fertile and passes the genes on to its offspring.
C: Oh, so it will have glowing babies?
E: It will have glowing babies, yeah.
C: What are your goals? What do you expect this plant to do?
E: First and perhaps biggest goal is to really educate and inspire the public about the amazing things that are happening with synthetic biology. It is us. It’s our food. It’s the source of all the energy that we use around the world, our medicines; everything is dependent on this code of A, T, C, and G that we call DNA. But people don’t understand it. People are afraid of it. There’s enormous backlash against genetically-modified foods, and we don’t think that’s right. We don’t think it’s right that large corporations have dominated this market space for a long time. The other goal we’d like is to get these plants bright enough to be usable for useful lighting where the goal may be one day of being able to replace electric street lights with natural glowing trees in the street. When we’ve got plants that are that bright, there are potentially other ecological questions that will come in, but we’ll cross those bridges as and when we get to them.
C: When you say big companies monopolize, you mean they actually own the patent. How do you operate?
E: We’re taking a more open approach. And we’re doing that for a few reasons, one I think fundamentally life is life. And I’m not convinced that you can own life. But second, we really see this as a way to accelerate progress in the field. When things are locked down in patented silos, all of the interesting things that can happen on the edge of that creativity get blocked. And, you know, in wave after wave of technological innovation we see that when the technology becomes open and available for people to mod on and create changes to and improvements too, then the benefit of the crowd really takes over. And we see an exponentially different acceleration in the whole field.
C: Are there any concerns about when those seeds will be in the wild?
E: We participated in a number of panels of the leading ecologists, and no one has really identified any clear risks that we can see that will come from that plant. And again, you’ve got to remember this is a non-food plant, we’re inserting a gene that imposes a high metabolic cost on the plant and provides no selectable advantage and we believe is non-toxic. So really this is as low risk as you can get. Now, will there be unknown unknowns that we don’t know? Perhaps, but there always are with the introduction of anything new.