Monday, May 6, 2013

Synthetic Biology & Bioluminescent Plants to Light the Way

Create natural light with no electricity. An audacious idea from researchers out of Singularity University. Light up your house with natural plants, save electricity and CO2, and reduce the eco-energy-footprint. Replace energy-draining electric lights with glowing green biotechnological plants.

The core team behind this project includes Senstore co-founder Antony Evans, Omri Amirav-Drory, postdoctoral fellow at Stanford and founder of the gene building startup Genome Compiler, and Kyle Taylor, a biologist who teaches Molecular and Cell Biology at BioCurious.

The team generates modified genes using Genome Compiler to design and print DNA to create new sequences, then inserts those genes into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant related to mustard and cabbage. The central gene, luciferase, is the same gene found in fireflies. The research group determined an efficient process to modifying the luciferase gene, creating a recycle function that will help generate the enzymes that are needed to enable the plant to provide adequate light.

Arabidopsis was chosen based on a specific set of factors: safe, winter plant, does not need direct sunlight to thrive, does not spread wild, and has a simplistic structure...a plant that would thrive indoors and outdoors...safely. Here is a model organism with a small genome with its metabolic pathways already mapped. Imagine this technology applied to modified redwoods or oak tress. Egad, a forest of bioluminescent trees. Charge admission to pay for the science, provide classes in bio-genetic plant manipulation to larger audiences to bring in extra revenue, bring in other researchers to grow the living eco-energy forest ecosystem, publish open-access science, and make this accessible to large audiences  - democratech in action.

On synthetic biology, the team reports:
"All living organisms contain an instruction set that determines what they look like and what they do. These instructions are encoded in the organisms’s DNA — long and complex strings of molecules embedded in every living cell. This is an organism’s genetic code (or “genome”)."
"Humans have been altering the genetic code of plants and animals for millennia, by selectively breeding individuals with desirable features. As biotechnologists have learned more about how to read and manipulate this code, they have begun to take genetic information associated with useful features from one organism, and add it into another one. This is the basis of genetic engineering, and has allowed researchers to speed up the process of developing new breeds of plants and animals."

In an article on Singularity Hub, researchers noted the most difficult part of the process was navigating ethical and regulatory concerns. With little precedent for these kinds of scientific breakthroughs, regulatory bodies will be pushed to determine the long-term effects on health and wellness. Projects like these stand at the crossroads of science. Projects that dare us to ask more of ourselves, expand our notions of what is possible in science, and push forward the legal parameters. The good news is that we will have many chances to answer these questions as inventions such as these become more commonplace and accessible.

Tech Crunch reported that researchers have, "...gone through the regulatory process to ensure that the project is compliant with U.S. law. Regulators from the USDA and EPA are naturally concerned that synthetic plants could become pests and crowd out or compete with natural plants for resources. They check for whether newly designed life forms have genes associated with pests; Evans has cleared this. The third agency that regulates synthetic biology experiments, the FDA, isn’t really involved here because these “Glowing Plants” are inedible."

DNA synthesis can be a costly process (albiet lowering) where monetary costs can accelerate quickly, especially in testing and beta phases. As reported on BoingBoing, the project leads noted, "Printing DNA costs a minimum of 25 cents per base pair and our sequences are about 10,000 base pairs long. We plan to print a number of sequences so that we can test the results of trying different promoters – this will allow us to optimize the result. We will be printing our DNA with Cambrian Genomics who have developed a revolutionary laser printing system that massively reduces the cost of DNA synthesis."

A successful Kickstarter Campaign is already underway. The team has created a highly professional project with detailed information, various donor levels, and many items to incentivize funding donation. As of the date of this post, the group has already collected an incredible $239,569 of a stated $65,000 goal. Incentives include t-shirts, glowing seeds, two different vases, how-to manual, glowing plant, master kit, and the chance to have a personalized message written in the plant DNA.

It takes only one success, and future iterations are sure to follow. Researchers theorize that these future iterations could be developed to include numerous environmental sensors including air, temperature, light, and movement. Plants that transform shape in relation to environmental stimulus for starters. Dream big, dream green.

(Video Source: DNews)

Image Sources: Kickstarter.


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