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Bio Hackers

A recent Kickstarter campaign to genetically engineer a glowing plant and distribute its seeds across the country has raised questions about the ethical responsibility of DIY scientists in the brave new world of synthetic biology.



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At first, these so-called garage scientists proceeded cautiously, screening calls and keeping meeting locations secret. "No one was really sure what was okay and what wasn't," McCauley recalled. "Was this allowed? Were there any regulations about this?" But as time went on, the scientists realized that collaborating in a centralized location would be a more efficient, not to mention more open, way of doing things. "At first we just wanted a place we could put all our gadgets," McCauley said. "But, fairly quickly, the people became more important than the gadgets themselves."

And so, in 2010, after raising $35,000 on Kickstarter and setting up a permanent space in Sunnyvale, BioCurious was born. It joined a growing community of bio hackers: In the same month, a similar DIY lab called Genspace opened in Brooklyn. A couple years earlier, an online network called was set up to organize the diffuse network of amateur scientists cropping up around the country. Its email listserv — a hotbed of ideas and debate — now goes out to more than 3,200 individuals. And it's a motley crew, albeit one united fiercely in geekery and an eagerness to get their hands dirty: industry scientists pursuing side-projects off-hours, hackers, makers, and even a smattering of people with no technical background whatsoever. The policy of keeping the doors open to anyone has been central to the growing role of the biohackerspace as a public biology classroom: Participants often refer to the movement as the "democratizing" of science.

No longer secretive, DIY bio was fast becoming an open, community-driven collaboration by the late 2000s. Projects included such innovative ideas as 3D-printing live cells in hopes of making tissues and organs, as well as simpler projects like sequencing the DNA in grocery-store produce to see if it's been genetically modified or not. Some in the community even hinted at the potential for commercializing the innovation fermenting inside the spaces. "Everyone would love to find some genius tinkering away in a garage," McCauley said. And in the Bay Area, venture capital and tech entrepreneurs were beginning to take notice.

Kyle Taylor was approaching the end of his Ph.D focusing on plant pathology at Stanford University when he first came across BioCurious. Boyish and self-effacing, with wire-rim glasses and short blonde hair, Taylor grew up in rural Kansas — where, he said, "evolution just didn't get taught." Put off by the prospects of a post-doc and the tight bottleneck to academia — defined by its reliance on the ever-shrinking pool of grant money — Taylor decided to try an alternative route, teaching high school chemistry and biology by day, and tinkering around at BioCurious by night. "It seemed to me that if this whole DIY bio thing was going to succeed, it was going to be in the Bay Area," Taylor surmised. "There's just a lot of interesting people doing a lot of interesting and crazy things over here."

Taylor began running his own experiments at BioCurious, teaching molecular biology classes in the space, and working on a community project playing around with bioluminescence genes in bacteria — attempting to insert the coded pathways that produce glowing into organisms like E. coli, algae, and, eventually, the Arabidopsis plant — when he was approached by Omri Amirav-Drory and Antony Evans. They, too, wanted to make a glowing plant, but they also had reason to believe there would be a market for the project on Kickstarter. "When we say 'glowing plant,' everyone gets that instantly, and people want it," Evans said in a phone interview. "And I think a successful Kickstarter also needs to have some intangible, higher calling — a higher purpose behind it — which in our case is this long-term mission to use plants as street lights."

Other scientists had already engineered glowing plants: In 1986, a group from UC San Diego showed that they could make tobacco plants express the firefly enzyme luciferase, so when the plant was sprayed with the chemical luciferin, it would temporarily emit a bluish-green glow. In 2010, a group in New York engineered a modified tobacco plant containing bacterial bioluminescence genes so that it produced a dim, but continuous, light all on its own.

Taylor believed he could use that latter method to create Amirav-Drory and Evans' glowing plant, and signed on to the project. Some scientists have cast aspersions on whether the team will be able to get the plants to emit much light, but that hasn't deterred it: "The path to streetlights may look something like Arabidopsis, a rose, and then maybe a bigger houseplant that is just a nice sort of ambient lighting for your house," Evans said. "Then maybe we'll work on the trees."

That dream, however, remains in the realm of science fiction. The project — which has moved to its own lab space — is still in the initial cloning stages, but Taylor hopes to have Arabidopsis seeds ready to mail by May of next year.

Although the Glowing Plant team's techniques are not new, its aims certainly are. University researchers and industry groups, for example, have long used a jellyfish gene for green fluorescent protein as a research tool, but that only glows when exposed to UV light. The Glowing Plant project's altered Arabidopsis plant, if it's successfully engineered, will emit light constantly. Once Taylor agreed to come onboard the Glowing Plant project as the team's scientist, a debate quickly emerged over what it meant to make the glowing plants in the first place.

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