In the last week, over 3,000 people on Kickstarter ignored the fact it's next to impossible to keep a houseplant alive and backed the now fully-funded "Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity" campaign. The funds will be used to build upon existing technology and create a transgenic plant that has a soft blue-green glow to act as an electricity-free nightlight. Backer rewards, each glowing, include an arabidopsis plant, a rose plant, and arabidopsis seeds. We check in as the Glowing Plants team heads towards their first stretch goal and look at how this project is part of a bigger trend in DIY biology. But be warned: this is not your grandma's seed catalog.
Arabidopsis thaliana is a small unassuming plant, but is as famous in science circles as any plant has a hope of achieving. But the final glowing plant won't be 100 percent arabidopsis. Spliced into its genes will be the bacterial biochemical pathway to create bioluminescence. Luciferin and luciferase (“lucifer” meaning “light-bringer”) will give the plants a constant but gentle blue-green glow, probably only visible in the dark.
The process is like building a custom hot rod. The Glowing Plants team can increase the amount of light produced by changing the genetic “language” from bacterial to plant and experimentally find bottlenecks in the chemical pathway. The team even has the option of changing exactly what color of light is produced and when and where. Promoters, or the sequences of DNA that control proteins actually being produced, could be chained with the luciferin pathway to only produce light when desired, such as when the plant is cut, touched, or at day or night. These sequences will be strung together in a computer program and sent elsewhere for printing into strands of DNA.
The Glowing Plant team came together out of a bioluminescence meetup group at a local bio hackerspace, which is reflected in their methods and goals. The project manager, Antony Evans, reflects, “One of the big motivations for the project was to do science in a different, more open way...” They plan on live-blogging their process and have already had some data peer-reviewed. The resulting DNA sequence will be released with an open source noncommercial license, starting talk among the project's backers of which transgenic plants they might create at home (Evans' dream glowing plant would be a willow tree).
Some of the backer rewards also encourage this DIY biology ethic. Among the offerings are a complete maker kit to transform your own plant from the ground up, a hands-on plant transformation workshop for you and 30 of your nerdiest friends, and having a message of your choice written directly into the very DNA of the plant.
The team's goal after the project is completed involves moving on to bigger plants and maybe someday trees, which could potentially replace streetlights. Meanwhile, there's still time to get your own glow on. A Kickstarter pledge of US$40 will score you the arabidopsis seeds, while $150 is required for an actual plant and the seeds, and the possibility of a rose plant if the the stretch goals are met.