5:22pm

Tue September 24, 2013
Health, Science, Environment

Biohacking project a glowing controversy

When we think of garage scientists, eccentric, gray-haired Dr. Emmett Brown from Back to the Future might come to mind. But these days, garages seem a little old-fashioned -- especially when you can work in a tricked out DIY Bio Lab. DIY, or Do It Yourself, labs are for citizen scientists to collaborate. Rather than for profit, the projects are for learning -- things like building robots and printing live cells from 3-D printers. Collective membership dues make the fancy lab equipment affordable. And that’s the goal: make science more accessible, and less intimidating. 

DIY Bio got its start in the Bay Area, when a Sunnyvale lab called BioCurious opened in 2010. At that time, it was one of just two such labs. Now there are more than 30 throughout the world.

The DIY movement is growing -- and that means the stakes are higher. Recently, four scientists at BioCurious began experimenting with making glowing seeds. But they needed money, so instead of keeping the seeds for themselves, they decided to promise them to anyone who backed their project on Kickstarter. It was their way of democratizing biology.

“The glowing plant is a symbol of the future. A symbol of sustainability. A symbol to inspire others,” the Kickstarter video declared. “Help us light the way.” 

After eight weeks, the project had more than 8,000 backers -- all expecting glowing seeds. And all those backers caused a backlash from people worried that distributing the seeds could have unintended, and dangerous, consequences for ecosystems around the world.            

A tiny glowing plant

The Container Lab, parked in San Francisco’s Dogpatch district, was once an actual shipping container. These days, though, it’s a molecular biology lab. Which suits Taylor just fine.

“If you're passionate about plant biology and you want to go into the industry, there's few options,” Taylor says. “It's kind of limited to multi-national corporations.”

Taylor doesn’t like those options. So he prefers to work outside universities and institutions. “There's something about the Bay Area that makes you want to strike out on your own and test the waters,” Taylor said. “to see if you can maybe try to change things for the better.”

At the back of the Container Lab, Taylor keeps the small wiry plant he hopes to make glow. It’s called an Arabidopsis. “It's not like a tulip or a rose or a redwood tree,” Taylor says. “but it's a little plant that has its unique charms.”

Someday, he wants glowing plants to replace street lamps. But for now, he just wants people to be less intimidated by genetic engineering. And he says a glowing plant is a good place to start. It’s an idea people can easily wrap their minds around, and get excited about.

But making a glowing plant takes money. So when he was still at BioCurious, he and his colleagues started a Kickstarter campaign, and promised each backer a glowing seed of their own. For Taylor, that was the end of the line -- the joy of holding a glowing seed is a reward in itself.

But the project raised close to half a million dollars. Which made it about more than joy. 

Genetically modified thank-you gifts

The Glowing Plant team still hasn’t produced a single glowing seed. Yet it’s already generated fierce controversy at BioCurious. “Do we know what’s gonna happen when that Arabidopsis is placed in a lot of settings locally...front lawns, window sills, forests...wherever it is that it’s grown?” Kristina Hathaway, the lab’s executive director, asks. “No, we really don’t. And that’s the part where people get worried, and they get alarmed, because we don’t really know.”

Hathaway thinks the light the glowing plant has cast an unwanted shadow on BioCurious, and all of DIY bio, by linking the movement to a potentially risky project. She worries this will increase federal regulation. “DIY bio in general is not an openly regulated field, which is a good thing,” Hathaway says. “We try to use our powers for good. And what does that mean? It means, don’t just genetically engineer something and wildly release it without thinking about what the consequences might be.”

This is why Kyle Taylor is working in a shipping container -- the controversy got so big that he left BioCurious. Technically, though, he hasn’t done anything wrong. Genetically modifying an Arabidopsis plant is completely legal. Authority to ban the plant would fall to the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the release of genetically engineered plants.

But according to Susan Hake, the director at the United States Department of Agriculture Gene Expression Center in Berkeley, the plants would only need regulation if they were edible, or invasive weeds. “These are all considerations. What does it cross with? What does it eat? Would you be creating superweeds?” Hake says.

But, Hake says that as long as DIY biology doesn’t cross over into agricultural territory, there are no permits needed and no harm done. Plus, The DNA that makes arabidopsis glow doesn’t change its basic characteristics. “Arabidopsis is a weed and it does pretty well in the wild as it is,” she says. “They’re self-pollinating, which means that they don’t out cross. And I don’t think the glowing light gives it any kind of advantage. It’s not going to make it sadder or happier in the wild.” 

Out-of-control seeds?

But to others, this isn’t an issue of whether or not any one glowing plant is safe. It’s about regulating all GMOs. In response to the Glowing Plant Kickstarter campaign, human rights organization ETC and environmental group Friends of The Earth wrote Kickstarter a letter.

“We are writing to express our concern about the listing of a project on Kickstarter that will likely result in widespread, random and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds and plants produced through the controversial and risky techniques of synthetic biology,” the letter read. 

Kyle Taylor has invited his backers to be a part of the conversation and to ask questions about the project’s safety. He hopes other scientists will build on their work. “The construct that we used, the DNA sequence that we used,” Taylor says. “we want them to be open sourced and available to other labs.”

In the wake of the controversy, Kickstarter now bans rewarding backers with genetically modified plants. But the Glowing Plant Project is allowed to proceed. Which means more than 8000 people will get their hands on glowing seeds in less than a year. For Taylor, that’s what the project is all about -- reminding people that you don’t need to work for a private corporation or university to play around with science or, on a more grand scale, to change the world. “It's 2013...weren't we promised flying cars?” he says. “With the recent economic recession, all the talk about climate change, it seems to get the general impression that there's a bleak, or less than bright future. This seems to be a way of taking back the narrative and taking back the future. At the risk of making a horrible pun, the future is brighter than people think.”

One other glowing project recently cropped up on Kickstarter before the ban – this one involves growing and tending to single-celled organisms called dinoflagellates that survive on undiluted sunlight. So even if we don’t get glowing plants, we might get glowing, single-celled house pets. 

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