Harnessing bioluminescence to light the night sans electricity isn't a new concept, but tinkering with Mother Nature's genes has never been easier or cheaper. That's why you could soon find yourself reading a bedtime book by the soft green light of a glow-in-the-dark plant.
As the cost of genomic sequencing and DNA printing comes down, startups are capitalizing on the new ease with which you can hack nature. One, called Glowing Plant, generated nearly half a million dollars last year via its much-hyped Kickstarter, and has now received another funding boost from the Y-Combinator startup incubator. The company is planning to ship out its pre-ordered glow plants early as November.
The process is quite simple. The company designs DNA sequences with the genes of fireflies or marine creatures and uses DNA laser printing and a Gene Gun to insert the DNA into the plant. As founder and CEO Antony Evans told the Wall Street Journal last year, "It's almost as simple as pressing a button in the software and then uploading our credit card information."
That said, the technology is still in its infancy (Glowing Plant is one of Y-Combinator's first biotech startups) and is bound to face regulatory and ethical questions as it scales. The startup is quick to point out that genetically modifying organisms for light isn't as risky and shouldn't be as controversial as genetically modifying organisms for food.
But it is still creating life—"playing God" as the common criticism goes—and that's bound to be controversial in some circles. In fact, Glowing Plant isn't just engineering life, it's encouraging others to do it too—"democratizing life," as Evans put it in a TED Talk last year. The startup has open-sourced its seeds and DNA designs, and released a detailed DIY synthetic biology "how to" guide.
Perhaps to ward off controversy, the biotech company is framing genetic engineering as a sustainability solution; you know, "making the world better place" one Silicon Valley startup at a time. But Evans sang a slightly different tune in an interview with TechCrunch yesterday. "With food, the risk of unintended consequences is much larger," he said. "We just want to build fun, cool products."
Products like genetically engineered plants that double as air fresheners, or insect repellants, he suggested. Or even the original ambitious goal (which at this stage is still pretty unrealistic) to use bioluminescent vegetation to light city streets at night.
Replacing street lamps with self-glowing "autoluminescent" plants was also the goal of a University of Cambridge project from the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in 2010. A team of scientists and engineers placed genes from fireflies and bioluminescent bacteria into E. coli to generate light as an alternative to conventional electricity. They were able to read in the dark by a flask lit with modified, glowing bacteria.
Glowing Plant currently has a dimly-lit prototype, and says the plants will get brighter with each iteration as they continue to experiment.