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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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Still, Snow said, perhaps the more important question is so what? "I haven't thought of any harm that would come from it myself," she said, stressing the fact that this is a much more philosophical battle about disrupting nature, although most things we release into nature do something to disrupt it. "Ecologically, I don't know that it would be any worse than a streetlight — it would probably be way less bad than that." However, she said she still hopes the Glowing Plant team does the necessary testing. "But I do think it sets precedent, and I'm not too happy about the precedent that it sets," she concluded.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the Glowing Plant team's scientific advisor, Alameda-based bioinformaticist Patrik D'haeseleer, shares Snow's concerns over precedent. "That's exactly why I'm supporting this project, because it raises all these issues," he said. "Listen, if we decide that it's okay for a multibillion-dollar company to do this, then they've got to let us biohackers do it as well, right? My attitude is that there's a chance we might get shut down by the EPA or the USDA, but in my opinion that's not necessarily a bad outcome. If it helps clarify the regulatory framework around genetic engineering, that might be a good thing."

This is a point that Taylor also emphasizes: Given the fact that the rules are clearly inadequate and have been exploited by large corporations for several years, now is a good time to evaluate what's appropriate for the field of synthetic bio to make and release into the environment, and the sometimes insular community of DIY biologists should be a part of the conversation. Too much regulation would quash innovation, but too little is a black box whose implications are more opaque. But, given a list of actual environmental risks that government should be concerned with, D'haeseleer and Taylor argued, the Glowing Plant project would probably not be at the top.

And, according to Kuiken, the Glowing Plant project has forced people on Capitol Hill and in various federal agencies to finally take note of the gaping loopholes in the decades-old legislation regarding environmental release of genetically modified plants. The changes will take time, and "will most likely require congressional intervention," Kuiken said, stressing that it will be a "politically difficult" challenge. But, the discussions are happening. "This project has really awoken a lot of people in Washington that they're going to have to reevaluate how they're going to examine a lot of these things."

For Taylor, the Glowing Plant project has been a double-edged sword. Since the Kickstarter campaign ended, he's now able to work on the glowing plants full-time, having quit both his day job teaching high school science and his after-hours classes at BioCurious.

But he said the schism the project created in the DIY bio community has been "frustrating, disappointing, and in some ways heartbreaking" — especially now that BioCurious board members haven't let the team take their research materials to its new space. "I'm basically running under the assumption that the work we've done at BioCurious already is gone," Taylor said. "It's cleaner that way."

The Glowing Plant project has impacted BioCurious in another way: It's now struggling to keep afloat. Traditionally, the space has relied on membership fees, classes, and corporate sponsorships to cover its rent, insurance, and supply costs that total upwards of $5,000 to $6,000 per month. But perhaps it had become too reliant on Taylor teaching classes there; since he left, lab revenue has declined. Some members of the DIY bio community believe the Glowing Plant team "owes it" to BioCurious to help it financially.

The argument highlights an issue at the center of the whole Glowing Plant controversy: No one can seem to agree on what it means to be DIY in the first place. Philosophical arguments abound over the issues of patenting (some members believe fiercely in open source), funding sources, profit, and even broader existential goals. Are DIY bio labs platforms for education and creativity, or, as one recent Nature article put it, "hackubators" for entrepreneurial bubbling? A forthcoming DIY bio space in Oakland, Counter Culture Labs, hopes to be a site for all those things.

And, as the discussions around the Glowing Plant project continue, the verdict is still out on the goals of synthetic biology itself. A field currently buzzing with excitement over new possibilities for fighting disease and meeting our ever-increasing energy requirements may also occasionally be overzealous about its own capabilities. "I believe that we should be able to construct any genome that we like," Drory declared at a technology conference sponsored by Google last year. "It's obvious to me."

It may not, however, be so obvious to everyone else. Drory's statement, while hyperbolic, belies the view of many in the field. On the other side of the spectrum is a knee-jerk rejection of anything deemed as "tinkering with nature," despite human civilization's long history of doing so. But divorced from the raging debates over genetically modified organisms in our food supply, and in all likelihood posing no threat to the environment, the Glowing Plant project asks a more fundamental question: As far as engineering novel life forms, where do our values stand?

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