Space & Innovation

Glow-in-the-Dark Plants Go on Sale

With the seeds available online, this will be the biggest release of a genetically engineered plant into the world.

Fans of Avatar's Pandora forests rejoice: glow-in-the-dark plants are coming to your house, says Anthony Evans, the CEO of a synthetic biology startup that created the bioluminescent flora. Glowing trees will take awhile to make, but you can already preorder seeds of a glow-in-the-dark Arabidopsis, a little flowering plant of a mustard family. According to the original Kickstarter campaign last year, would start shipping the luminous Arabidopsis seeds to customers this April, but postponed the release date till fall.

Evans said that the delay is because the company raised more money than expected and could afford more work on tweaking their product to high shine. "We asked our backers a few months ago whether they wanted us to ship on time or to use the rest of the funds to improve the luminosity," Evans told Fox News. "The overwhelming advice was to improve."

Hacking Bacteria To Do Our Bidding: Photos

To create a bioluminescent plant, the biohackers synthetically cross-bred Arabidopsis and marine bioluminescent bacteria Vibrio fischeri. Directly inserting V. fischeri's DNA into the plant wouldn't work -- the genes required various modifications to operate properly in the plant. So the team used the synthetic approach. First, they assembled the genes virtually using a software called genetic compiler, which lets scientists assemble DNA for new life forms on their computers. Then they sent the gene specs to DNA-assembling companies which built the actual physical DNA. The biohackers also used an open source software called Golden Braid to aggregate smaller DNA sequences into longer ones.

To import the assembled genes into Arabidopsis, the team used bacteria Agrobacterium tumefaciens. In nature, A. tumefaciens is a pathogen that inserts its own genes into plants' cells, causing tumorous growth, but its neutralized version can deliver the synthesized DNA into the host plant without hurting it. The team inserted the genes into the leaves and assessed how well the plant adjusted, and how much light it produced. Because of extra funds, they're experimenting with a gamut of slightly varied DNA sequences to achieve the best glow. "We plan to test about 1500 sequences," Evans says, which is what caused the seed release delay.

When they settle on the best DNA sequence, they will create the commercial glow-in-the-dark Arabidopsis by using a tool called gene gun for DNA import -- because US Department of Agriculture considers agrobacteria a pest which is not allowed on products intended for use outside research labs. The gene gun will bombard the plant with tiny nanoparticles that deliver the DNA inside.

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When this "gunned" Arabidopsis blooms, it will produce seeds that will retain the new genes. Its offspring would glow in the dark like a mini member of Pandora's forest. Right now the team is testing the second-generation Arabidopsis's glowing aptitude.

With the seeds available to everyone online, this would be the biggest release of a genetically engineered plant into the world. This concept doesn't bode well with some environmentalists. When Glowing Plant first put their project on Kickstarter, an anti-synthetic biology group in Canada launched a "kickstopper" campaign to raise funds to prevent glowing plants from happening. The effort amassed a whopping $2274. The biohackers stopped a few bucks short of half a million dollars, beating their original goal by over seven times.

Synthetic biology and genetically modified organisms are highly disputed concepts in modern science. There are concerns that GMOs pose risks to humans or may become invasive species. But such risks are case-specific, says Christina Holmes at Dalhousie University in Canada who studies implications of biotechnology and plant breeding innovations on humanity, as well as tensions they may cause.

"Bluntly put, not all GMOs are equal," Holmes told Fox News. "It depends on what plant you're using, genes you're using, and what you're using it for." The risks are higher when plants in question are intended for human consumption, but Arabidopsis is just a weed. In terms of invasive species danger, risks also plant-specific. "This depends partly on how easy it is for the plant involved to spread its pollen and therefore its genes to other plants," Holmes said.

Hacking Bacteria To Do Our Bidding: Photos

For Arabidopsis, that would be a hard thing to do, said Kyle Taylor, the molecular and plant biologist at Glowing Plant. Arabidopsis is primarily a self-pollinating herb. "Ask any Arabidopsis biologist how hard it is to get them cross-pollinated and they will tell you that it's a non-trivial thing to do," Tylor told Fox News. He adds that it will be harder for the hybrid to survive because light production takes extra energy, which weakens the plant. The hybrid may even confuse its own light with sunlight, Tylor said, which may negatively affect its metabolism. "If you put a regular Arabidopsis next to a glowing one," Tylor said, "the glowing one looks less happy." Holmes says one may never know in advance how the new specie would behave, but the luminous modification "won't give it any better weed power" -- compared to, let say, canola that's genetically modified to resist herbicide.

Holmes points out that GMO studies have value, and the aura of negativity around it can impede research. "We're seeing stories of scientists being intimidated or losing their jobs when they do research that could provide environmental of health critiques of genetic modifications," Holmes told Fox News.

That's exactly what Glowing Plant set off to do, said Evans-to make the concept of synthetic biology exciting and relatable to people. "The reason people have such mistrust in biotechnology, is that they don't understand it," Evans told Fox News. "We believe that we can change the resistance to biotechnology by creating something tangible, something people can understand."

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"I think it's an interesting approach," Holmes said.

So will we live to see Pandora's-forest-like trees that will replace street lamps, cutting down on electricity use and CO2 emissions? "It's gonna take a lot of work to get to that level," Tylor says. "It's biology, so things can pop up that we don't fully understand." But he adds, "We have some ideas how to get there."

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To make this flowering plant of a mustard family glow, scientists cross bred it with a marine bioluminescent bacteria.

According to the WWF, at least 10,000 species of animals become extinct every year. It seems that conservation efforts alone cannot stem the obliteration of animal life on the planet. A new project by

Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg

, a designer and artist, and design fellow on Synthetic Aesthetics project, questions whether humanity could tolerate using synthetic animals to help perpetuate natural species and also clean up the environment that threatens them.

The project, Designing For the Sixth Extinction, is part of the

Grow Your Own, Life After Nature

, and invites people to consider the implication of synthetic life. Specifically, it focuses on the the relationship between conservation, biodiversity and synthetic biology, imagining what four bio-engineered creatures could do if released into the wild.

Bioaerosol Microtrapping Biofilm

This self-replicating biofilm acts as a protective coating on leaf surfaces to prevent airborne pollutants as well as fungal spores from damaging the plant. The biofilm traps the particles, but doesn't interfere with the leaf's ability to function. When the leaf falls at the end of the season, the trapped matter goes with it. The bio-waste is collected and processed by another synthetic creature, the Mobile Bioremediation Unit.

Photos: Hacking Bacteria to Do Our Bidding

Mobile Bioremediation Unit

Reminiscent of a leaf or a slug, this critter is designed for bioremediation. It moves through a forest floor, disturbing the topsoil as it goes along, in search of soil with high acid levels caused by pollution. When it finds such dirt, it disperses an alkali hygroscopic fluid to neutralize the acid. The unit has two extra bases in its DNA, making it inedible to other animals. A genetic kill-switch limits the device to a 28-day lifespan.

Video: Synthetic Life Becomes a Reality

Autonomous Seed Disperser

This synthetic animal looks like a hedgehog at first glance, but its job is to rove the earth and collect and disperse seeds. It moves by flexing and contracting its chassis. Coarse hairs and rubbery spines on top are designed to collect and distribute seeds. The creature gets power from waste collected by the Mobile Bioremediation Unit and has a lifespan of 600 days.

Photos: When Art Meets Science

Self-inflating Antipathogenic Membrane Pump

This single-use device treats the infection that causes Sudden Oak Death. It begins as a tiny spore that establishes itself in oak trees. When a biochemical sensor inside detects the presence of infection in the tree, the synthetic organism begins to grow into a double-chamber bubble. The inner chamber produces an antipathogenic serum; the outer chamber serves as a pump to push the serum into the infection site. After it has injected the medicine, the pump deflates, decouples and falls to the forest floor, where it's picked up by a bioremediation unit.

Photos: Unreal Micro-Art: How Did They Do That?