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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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The issue came down to responsibility: Who can say, once the seeds are distributed, what people might do with them? What's the worst that could happen? Has there been any precedent? And should the team be responsible to consider these issues in the first place?

"We debated that a lot, like, for months, internally," said Evans, who, along with Amirav-Drory, was a strong proponent of distributing the seeds. "And at the end of the day, we came down on the fact that it's legal, and the big goal of this is to educate and inspire people. Putting the seeds in people's hands is the best way to do that. It's clear that the seeds are what people wanted. And, you know, I think that validates it."

Whereas in the grant-funded model scientists are, presumably, beholden to advancing the public good, the Glowing Plant team is beholden to the wishes of its backers, who are expecting to have their own glowing plants by early next year. But, many in the DIY bio world have argued, the team also has a responsibility to the community it has come to represent.

BioCurious' safety policy forbids the release of any engineered organisms from the lab to the public. "Our lab is really a one-way lab; things go in, but they don't go out," said Kristina Hathaway, operations manager and board member of BioCurious. "They're saying that there's this loophole in which they aren't violating guidelines. But do I think that's the right thing to do? I don't know that I do." BioCurious is currently planning a community meeting to discuss the project and whether it will let the team move its research materials to its new space.

The issue boils down to stewardship. The DIY bio community is split between those who think that the project is a fantastic way to spotlight the cool new capabilities of synthetic biology, and those who think that a glowing plant — even if it's legal and harmless to the environment — is bringing unwanted attention to a self-policing community that, until now, has had the privilege of doing its tinkering relatively free of federal regulation, mostly by veering far from the realm of recklessness. These independent scientists have been able to experiment freely because of the absence of any rules saying otherwise. In other words, the Glowing Plant project is only allowed to happen not because the rules say it can, but because there aren't any rules that say it can't.

One week after the launch of the Glowing Plant Kickstarter campaign, two environmental advocacy groups sent a letter to the US Department of Agriculture demanding that it put a stop to the project altogether. "This is bad policy and would set a dangerous precedent for all future agriculture biotechnology products and may pose risks to local environments," they wrote.

It turns out that the distribution of a genetically engineered plant not intended for human consumption — with the exception of a few weeds known to have detrimental agricultural impacts — is entirely legal. In fact, the Glowing Plant project is not even required by law to test the plant's ability to spread or its potential effects on the environment.

The reason goes back to a multibillion-dollar corporation known for keeping America's lawns green — The Scotts Miracle-Gro Company — as well as the company that's become the veritable poster child for genetically engineered crops — Monsanto. In 2011, Scotts Miracle-Gro designed a type of Kentucky bluegrass that was resistant to Monsanto's common weed-killer, glyphosate, also known as Roundup.

According to a Reagan-era regulatory framework, oversight of genetic engineering is a fairly loose patchwork spread across a handful of federal agencies. Unlike so-called "Roundup-ready" corn, soy, and other crops, which fall under their own set of murky rules, the Scotts Miracle-Gro Kentucky bluegrass was exempt from regulation by the FDA because it was not a food product; similarly, the EPA had no say, because its jurisdiction is only over microorganisms.

Instead, the authority fell on the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the release of genetically engineered plants. Scotts Miracle-Gro realized it only had to ensure two things in order to avoid any regulation of its genetically engineered bluegrass: The plant could not be a plant pest or involve the use of any plant pests, and the method of inserting the DNA could not involve the use of a certain type of bacteria commonly used to shuttle DNA into plants. The Kentucky bluegrass did not involve the use of any plant pests, and researchers used a gene gun to literally shoot microscopic pellets of the Roundup-resistant genes into the plant's cells. Ultimately, Scotts Miracle-Gro was able to fully circumvent federal oversight.

Following this precedent, the Glowing Plant team is making use of the same loopholes. Thus, the USDA, much to the chagrin of environmental advocacy groups, has no authority over the project, or any other projects like it.

"I think a lot of these questions about the ecological impacts of introducing these sort of products is going to be — needs to be — reevaluated," said Todd Kuiken, senior program associate at the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center think tank in DC. "You can imagine in twenty years that if synthetic biology is really successful and takes off, then you're going to have in a sense really novel plants that could potentially be introduced that you may need to evaluate, but that, under the current system, might not get triggered in any way based on how the laws are written."

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