Glowing plants and DIY bio succeed on Kickstarter


May 2, 2013

The Glowing Plants project aims to let you read by plantlight (Image: Shutterstock)

The Glowing Plants project aims to let you read by plantlight (Image: Shutterstock)

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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.

Source: Glowing Plant, Kickstarter

About the Author
Heidi Hoopes Heidi measures her life with the motley things she's done in the name of scientific exploration. While formally educated in biology and chemistry, informally she learns from adventures and hobbies with her family. Her simple pleasures in life are finding turtles while jogging and obsessively winnowing through her genetic data. All articles by Heidi Hoopes

I thought I was scared of what Monsanto was doing.


Very clever! However, I can imagine teams of people being needed to turn the streetlights on and off again (the old lamplighter guild?) if, for instance, an enemy bomber scare was created to make the 'Blitz" blackout necessary.

The Skud

And now this is a thing. GAHHHHH BIONERDFREAKOUT!!!!!!!!! Next up, hoverboards #we live in the future.

Chris Mason

bioengineering is getting interesting. When it is summer in the northern hemisphere global CO2 levels drop slightly due to greater amounts of vegetation in the north. Given where bioengineering is today I wonder how hard it would be to study which types of vegetation are best at converting CO2 and improve on them to reduce global CO2 levels?

ie. how long before the grass in my lawn glows in the dark, converts about 2x the amount of CO2, and still thrives in colder months? It sounds like science fiction but given where things are now it isn't that crazy.

It's dangerous too though for sure as people start reprogramming life and unleashing it out into the wild as it could have a lot of unintended consequences like driving out native species. Species tend to evolve along side each other so there could be dire consequences revegetating large areas with new plant species at a pace wildlife isn't equipped to adapt to.

This would be like what happens when people take fish species from other places in the world and throw them into local lakes and streams. Instead of people unleashing malicious to cause havoc on the Internet they could program harmful DNA that would be much more complicated to contain.


why do we need to modify plants if there is real free energy even long before Tesla??

Walk Buttons Ash Torres

All knowledge can be used for creative or destructive ends. The advocates of control by initiation of force deny the contradiction in their methodology. They rely on the emotion of fear to short circuit or block out rational argument. And we have people saying: "I don't mind living in a police state if it makes me safer." Ironically, the more reason is sacrificed to brute force, the less safe we are.

Just because it "feels right" does not mean it is right, i.e., feeling are automatic reactions based on value judgements which could be true or false.

Don Duncan

"Given where bioengineering is today I wonder how hard it would be to study which types of vegetation are best at converting CO2 and improve on them to reduce global CO2 levels?"

Ten bucks says Hemp is in the top five species.

William Carr
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