The next time you turn down a city corner at night, instead of streetlamps, you might find a series of glow-in-the-dark trees illuminating your way home.
The concept of creating bioluminescent plants is "old hat," according to the project’s manager, Antony Evans. “It’s been around for a while; it just hasn’t reached mainstream yet,” he said.
What’s different is that his team is trying to apply techniques that are well-known in genetic engineering and systems biology to everyday problems in a way that the broader public can relate to the science.
“There is no better time than now to educate and inspire people about genetic engineering and its applications,” said Evans. And that’s a direct result of the steep drop in cost of sequencing and synthesizing DNA, which is bringing the technologies to amateur scientists and resulting in new applications for those genetic engineering techniques.
The foundation for the Glowing Plants project lies in decades of other scientists’ work with luciferin—the bioluminescent compound found in fireflies—and the sequencing of genes that give animals like jelly fish their natural fluorescent glow.
Building on that research, the project’s lead scientist, Kyle Taylor, and the rest of the Glowing Plants team used sequence analysis software to design DNA coding for a fluorescent protein that can be inserted into the genome of the plant Arabidopsis. The plan is to fabricate the DNA using a 3-D laser printer and then move it to the plant. To raise funds for their project, the team turned to the crowd funding website Kickstarter.
"It's paradoxical that we don't yet have this," Harvard geneticist George Church says on the project's fundraising page. "Biology is very energy efficient and energy packets are more dense than batteries. Even a weakly glowing flower would be a great icon."
Evans says the team turned to Kickstarter for fundraising because it embodies the do-it-yourself spirit and is making the project more accessible to the public. According to the project's Kickstarter page, more than 5000 individuals have pledged donations totaling more than $289,000 to date to fund the research.
The site's power lies in its ability to loosen the strong control of intellectual property found at research institutes or corporations, where scientists would typically do this this type of work, Evans says. It also allows for real-time peer review because the team publishes their results and receives feedback immediately.
Based on the financial support and feedback, the team plans to have its first glowing plant ready by May 2014. But, Evans adds, he hopes the project does not stop there.
“There’s huge potential to use this technology to solve interesting problems, hopefully adding real world value,” he says. “What applications this technology could inspire are only limited by our imagination.”
Evans cautioned, of course, that these new innovations have to meet current regulations and that "it’s beholden on us as early pioneers in this space to approach those issues appropriately to protect future research.”