Over three years ago, in the summer of 2013, Antony Evans, CEO of synthetic biology startup company TAXA Biotechnologies, launched a Kickstarter project to raise money for a provocative new product: genetically modified tobacco plants that glowed in the dark. His goal was to sell them them to people as alternative lighting sources for their homes and offices, and the project quickly went viral and was linked to and written up across the web, before inspiring Kickstarter to ban giving away GMO organisms as rewards. But now, after having raised over $480,000 and garnering support from pre-orders, customers still have not received their glowing plants.
Still, that hasn't stopped Evans from trying to commercialize other designer plants. After speaking to Motherboard earlier this year, the entrepreneur appeared before us again at the Biofabricate conference on biological design in New York City again this month, to show off his latest product: a fragrant moss that's genetically modified with patchouli DNA, in order to act as an air freshener. Given Evans' track record with the glowing plant project—now delayed over several years—why should anyone trust him that his new moss will ship in time, or ever?
Evans told Motherboard in a phone call that his company is still finalizing the design of the moss, but the product will be ready for a January or February launch (he previously told us it would ship as early as December). The moss should last at least a year, and customers can order it online once it's ready for somewhere between $40 and $79 (Evans said the details are still being finalized).
This time, Evan guarantees to get the product out on schedule. "The big difference with the fragrant moss is we've completed the work on the genetic engineering, which is the primary technical risk," he said. "One of the lessons we learned with the glowing plant was that preorders are not a great way to raise money for products with a high degree of technical risk."
The moss will probably grow in synthetic soil like hydroponic material, and require watering once or twice a week and some nutrients.
The genetic modification begins with uploading the moss's genetic sequences to a software, used to redefine and modify them. Using polyethylene glycol to dissolve the plant cell walls, the moss can be manipulated to absorb selective patchouli DNA. It's called patchouli synthase, an enzyme that allows cells to produce patchouli molecules. Then, the moss is put on a synthetic media so that only the cells which have absorbed the new DNA will survive. Those cells are then left to grow out over a few weeks. "When they're a little bit grown, we cultivate them in larger volumes and that becomes the product," said Evans.
So far, Evans has raised $650,000 through crowdfunding and angel investors for his moss project.
So what exactly happened with the glowing plant? "We're still working on that," said Evans. "We had some technical issues." Evans said TAXA was unable to get ahold of luxC, the sixth and last gene necessary for the plant's complete genetic modification. "Assuming we succeed in doing that [getting luxC], I think at this stage it's still possible," Evans said.
But if they can't get the missing gene, Evans said they'd try to work with alternative variants to luxC. "We're still testing things," he said. "We'll keep working on it till we get there." Evans would not commit to any firm release date for the glowing plants, however. So for now, backers and interested buyers will still have to take his word that it will ship—eventually.
Evans said his products are early examples of a "new future" in which people will engineer their own organisms like they engineer mobile apps today. "Organisms will become the new apps," he said. "This will change the nature of debate about GMOs."
Whereas GMOs get a bad rap and have been dominated by big companies like Monsanto, said Evans, TAXA Biotechnologies offers a new perspective on the field. "If we can make a GMO that's cool and that people aspire to own, we can change the way that people think about this technology," Evans said. "I firmly believe that we need this technology to put the world on a more sustainable path to address climate change. We can't just keep relying on using fossil fuels. Embracing advanced genetic engineering is required to maintain a healthy world where people can live in harmony and not destroy the planet. The biggest opposition to that is opposition to GMOs."
Correction: This story originally stated that "the moss can be manipulated to absorb synthetic patchouli DNA." In fact, it can be manipulated to absorb "selective" patchouli DNA. We've updated the reference and regret the error.
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