By William Cameron
SC Contributing Writer
If you find weekly plant watering more appealing than monthly electric bills, you aren’t alone. In response to a thriving crowdfunding initiative on Kickstarter.com, the world’s first light-emitting houseplants have now become commercially available.
The independent biotechnology startup Glowingplant.com has successfully applied synthetic biology techniques to produce a luminescent relative of the mustard plant.
The genetically modified version of the flowering weed emits a greenish glow from its leaves and stems and can be grown in a standard flowerpot with only common houseplant care. The plant utilizes natural principles of bioluminescence to produce light without the need of other power sources, additives, or special lighting.
Embracing the philosophy of DIY biology, company founder Antony Evans employed the concept of crowdfunding to bring his bright idea to fruition. Although Kickstarter has been host to scientific endeavors in the past, Evan’s project is the first to branch into the blossoming field of biotechnology.
The Glowing Plant project was also largely facilitated by the falling costs and increasing availability of bio-hacking technology. Utilizing available DNA technology and open source software, the team has successfully implanted gene sequences from bioluminescent marine bacteria into a garden variety weed.
The hybrid plants produced seeds that glow, which were then selectively bred to optimize shine. The website offers both mature plants and seeds for purchase.
Shipments were set to begin last spring, but have since been postponed to the fall. The delay is not a result of failure or resistance, but overfunding.
When the Glowing Plant project outgrew its original donation goal, they asked the project’s backers how they’d prefer to see excess funding used. The overwhelming majority rooted in favor of improving luminosity. The project will use the funds to crop successive generations by weeding out weaker plants, leaving only the brightest.
Though immensely popular, this crowd-seeded endeavor has not been without resistance. Various environmental groups have expressed concerns over unpredictable ecological repercussions.
One Canadian group’s protest inspired an oppositional campaign, dubbed “Kickstopper,” to halt the progress of the Glowing Plant project. However, the objecting campaign raised only 11 percent of its goal, failing to stunt the growth of the glow campaign.
While “Kickstopper” yielded little response, the Glowing Plant campaign flourished, exceeding its funding goal nearly seven times over. The US Department of Agriculture has yet to raise any concern over regulation of the plant.
Much of the controversy associated with genetic modification stems from the inherent health risk from products intended for human consumption.
Another hazard posed by synthetic biology is the potential to create invasive species, organisms that threaten native species of ecosystems upon their exposure. However, these modified plants present little apparent threat of invasiveness because it is a self-pollinating weed. This quality restricts its distribution and makes the contamination of other plant genomes highly unlikely.
In addition to its limited ability to reproduce or hybridize, the selective traits for light emission offer it no competitive benefit. Botanical luminescence hardly serves as an advantageous characteristic in a natural environment.
A plant that glows advertises itself as a prime target for consumption by insects and wildlife, and the energy it diverts to light production strains the plant’s metabolism, restraining its potential for growth.
Although these modified traits are ill-fitted for survival in the wild, they leave the glowing plant well suited as a de-light-fully decorative houseplant. Mature plants cost $100 and seeds are $40 plus shipping, both of which are available for order on Growingplant.com.
In addition to processing plant orders, the site also offers free instructional materials and sells DIY kits for splicing the glow genes. The website adamantly expresses that each purchase supports open science and symbolizes a more sustainable future.
The company hopes that its plants will inspire greater public interest and involvement in synthetic biology, lighting the way to a brighter future.
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