Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with No Electricity.
Hoax or Fact:
Fact with some missing information.
The interesting and innovating story about Glowing Plants that produce natural lighting without any electricity has become popular since more than a year now. Let us learn in detail about the project, its claims and the feasibility.
The Glowing Plant Project
The Glowing Plant project was the first crowdfunding campaign for a synthetic biology application - to produce glowing plants by inducing modified genes from fireflies and bioluminescent bacteria. The Glowing Plant project’s fundraising campaign on Kickstarter began officially in April 2013 and became wildly popular from the beginning. The project managed by Antony Evans initially hoped to raise a modest $65,000, but with thousands of backers, it brought them $484,013 in 44 days till 7 June 2013 through extended campaign on Kickstarter. Depending on their donation, the company promised to send backers the seeds to produce glowing plants, and later on added a glowing plant and a glowing rose as the funding became bigger. The company said they eventually want to be able to grow trees that could stand in for streetlights, reducing CO2 emissions by not requiring electricity.
How It is Done
To develop glowing plants, the team of 'biohackers' have been using lab techniques to insert DNA that codes for glowing proteins from fireflies and bacteria into plants. They have set up a bio lab in California and chosen a small flowering plant, Arabidopsis thaliana (a member of the mustard family) for their project. This is because it is easy to experiment with and carries minimal risk for spreading into the wild.
As of this writing, the company says they have a working prototype of glowing plant (20 second exposure) that they have demonstrated to hundreds of people (second picture in Image Gallery); that it emits a natural glow like glow-in-the-dark paint which anyone can see. Shown in the video is a brief interview of the project manager Antony Evans with Wall Street Journal.
Although the technology may appear new, as the team acknowledge, the first plant was engineered for bioluminescence in 1986 – when Tobacco was made to glow using firefly luciferase (the iconic picture that comes with the story is the same). When sprayed with the chemical substrate luciferin, the plant glowed temporarily. In 2010 again, another group engineered a tobacco plant to have its own weak glow, this time using bacterial genes instead. The same year, a team at the University of Cambridge (UK) created a genetic circuit in bacteria that makes both firefly luciferase and luciferin, so that the bacteria glow continuously. The current Glowing Plant team planned to tweak the genes in that circuit to make it work in plants.
The crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter for the Glowing Plant project was subject to a lot of controversy. One, it has stirred the debate over genetically modified organisms, and two, since the company is planning to send the seeds out, synthetic biologists have raised concerns that they could potentially grow in the wild and spread, causing mishaps with other plants and environment in general. In May 2013, a Canadian pressure organization ETC Group wrote a letter to Antony Evans requesting him to cancel the Kickstarter Synthetic Biology Glowing Plants' project - saying it poses real world risks to the environment. Following these controversies, Kickstarter changed their guidelines on 31 July 2013 to prohibit future Kickstarters from offering GMOs as rewards to project backers.
However, the team said they are engineering the plants to need a specific supplement to survive and that there wouldn't be any legal, ethical or environmental issues while shipping the seeds. They also said they are working forward towards a more sustainable future to make lighting open-source.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture did not show any regulatory concerns about the Glowing Plant project, but some synthetic biologists and policy researchers have questioned the project's feasibility along with its impact on future oversight.
Drew Endy, a synthetic biologist at Stanford University, raises doubts that apart from the genetic engineering involved, how much light the plants can actually emit -- because a plant’s ability to harvest energy from the Sun and convert it back into light will be limited. Theo Sanderson, a member of the Cambridge team who developed glowing bacteria, points the lack of clear discussion as to what the team actually plans to do with the funds raised. He supports that the firefly luciferase enzyme is indeed used in laboratories to emit light for measurement, but questions the viability and efficiency of the glowing plant project.
As for the company, they initially promised to deliver the glowing plant seeds to the project backers by May 2014 at the earliest, but later postponed it to Fall 2014. Although the fund-raising campaign on Kickstarter has ended on 7 June 2013, the team continues to invite funding through their website (offering preorder of glowing plant and related products). We will have to wait and see how efficient their project outcome shall be.