Synthetic biology Kickstarter aims to make glowing plants

Ben sez, "The first ever synthetic biology Kickstarter is about growing glowing plants. Using synthetic biology and Genome Compiler software, they are ready to input bio-luminescence genes into a mustard plant and have it be naturally glowing. Meant more as a hint of things to come and what can be achieved with synth bio."

It's ambitious, but the project's lead looks like he has the necessary experience. Still, as with all ambitious Kickstarters, you should be prepared to lose your dough.

We are using Synthetic Biology techniques and Genome Compiler’s software to insert bioluminescence genes into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant and member of the mustard family, to make a plant that visibly glows in the dark (it is inedible).

Funds raised will be used to print the DNA sequences we have designed using Genome Compiler and to transform the plants by inserting these sequences into the plant and then growing the resultant plant in the lab.

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.

Transforming the plant will initially be done using the Agrobacterium method. Our printed DNA will be inserted into a special type of bacteria which can insert its DNA into the plant. Seeds of a flowering plant are then dipped into a solution containing the transformed bacteria. The bacteria then injects our DNA into the cell nucleus of the seeds which we can grow until they glow! You can see this process in action in our video.

Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity or CO2


  1. they should be engineered to flash:   – – .   – –   – – –   (G M O…)

  2. I had a friend that worked on this as a project in college.  That problem is that plants are not particularly metabolically active compared to animals.(particularly warm blooded ones)  So ,while yes, they could insert the gene into the plant, and have the plant be relatively healthy, and have the light producing metabolic pathway active…it didn’t produce much light.  Specifically, you couldn’t see it by eye, but you could measure it using an electronic sensor if in a dark room.

    1. so perhaps if just the stamen or apical meristem or some-such was the only glowy bit…?  (and that only in response to ethylene levels (so they can be used to detect gas leaks as a happy side effect (but then they develop and unfortunate taste for human flesh (oh nutz now i’ve lost track of my parentheses (and now i can never die…)))))

          1.  I keep arguing with Dr. Wife that we should make commercial GFP cats, and sell them on the Internet. I figure we’d only need to sell 20 per year to become (comparitively) rich. Science labs aren’t allowed to do this, but a back-alley ghetto-lab? I’d rather not have to make methamphetamine, but I don’t want to kill the dud cats.

      1. Been there, done that:


        more photos:

        1. Those are all some sort of fluorescent protein (probably GFP – green fluorescent protein), those require excitation with some other light to actually get the color.

          From what I can gather from the kickstarter he is talking about inserting the genes for a light producing system (my guess is the lux operon) so that the plant actually produces light via a chemical reaction in the cells.

    1. A man could ask himself the same question every morning, and never leave the house.

  3. Seeing as the image of the glowing plant used in the video is from a 1986 Science paper, and is an image you can readily get off Google, I’m skeptical. So they filmed a guy in a lab coat standing in someone else’s lab, and have a computer? There’s no evidence they have a lab with funcitonal lab equipment and can produce a glowing plant. Anyway, Arabadopsis thaliana is a very small plant, and one whose genome has been sequenced. Being able to insert a firefly or jellyfish gene into a tree is a huge jump. Assuming they could transform a tree with bioluminescence genes, the trees would take 10’s or 100’s of years to grow to size. The issue of plant metabolism is not relevant. As long as the bioluminescence genes were in an area of the genome that was activley expressed as part of regular metabolism (growth, sugar transport, etc.), the plant should glow.

    1. “The issue of plant metabolism is not relevant.”Due to conservation of energy,  it is very much relevant.  If plants metabolize at a slow rate, the production of light will occur at a low rate.   And that isn’t even getting into the trickier issues, like the fact that most plants essentially fast at night.  Without light, plants can’t get energy, so dormancy during night is more efficient.  Thus, they’re even less active than their baseline when we most want a glow in the dark plant to be at peak activity.

      The kickstarter people basically acknowledge this in the fine print:
      “Biology is complicated and while we are confident of getting some glowing effect (it’s been done before in a research lab) we may not get a strong effect as we (or you) want or it may be unreliable.””As long as the bioluminescence genes were in an area of the genome that was activley expressed as part of regular metabolism (growth, sugar transport, etc.), the plant should glow.”

      Therein lies the rub.  The agrobacterium technique that they’re using is not targeted.  The genes will be inserted at random locations in the genome.  Often this will be junk dna, sometimes this will be important areas.   Often, the gene is inserted multiple times.   Many of the resultant plants are not viable.  They do this many times and then screen for the variants with highest fitness.  That is, the ones that were not seriously hobbled by having their genome hit with a “gene shotgun.”  Targeting is completely out of the question.

      That said, I’m not at all skeptical that they can insert the gene and do the screening.   It was easy enough to do as an undergraduate seniors thesis five years ago, with access to pretty standard university lab equipment.  But this isn’t anywhere near the cutting edge of science and is unlikely to produce the result that is suggested in the kickstarter materials.  

      1. very incisive, and perhaps they should seek collaboration with you.

        in anycase, i’d suggest that they at least consider chatting with someone that has done some sequence analysis on some of the bio-luminescent members of the Mycena (Foxfire) genus of fungus.  Yes, that’s a leap  between taxonomic kingdoms, but it’s at least a sensible starting point.

        1. I’m not saying a brightly glowing plant is impossible. Clearly, some creatures can do it.  And eventually, I believe the sky is the limit for genetic modification.  But the mere fact, that the goal is possible is setting the bar very, very low for how we spend our kickstarter dollars. (If I put up a $65k kickstarter to fund a space elevator, would you contribute?)
          So all I’m saying is that creating a plant that glows brightly is *very hard*. And you’re not going to make a very difficult GMO on a budget of $65,000.   For that much you’re not gonna be able to fund a post-doc for a year.  And that is just personnel, what about facilities, equipment, etc…?  

      2. They could try a plant with a high-metabolism phase, like skunk cabbage or corpse flower, but transformation protocols probably haven’t been worked out for those species. I do think it would be easier to raise Kickstarter money to make a putrid, glowing corpse flower as a Halloween decoration.

  4. Let’s see if I have this right: when Monsanto engineers GM crops it’s bad, but when hipsters on Kickstarter do the same thing it’s cool?

          1. Again with the not thinking! This isn’t rocket science, you know.

            If one objects to the desired outcome, then of course the identity of the agent is immaterial: assuming (and it is, at this point, very much an assumption) you dislike being kicked in the nuts, then it should be of little consequence to you whether the kicker hails from Copenhagen or Korolev.

    1. No, you’ve missed the main point about GM controversies. 
      It’s not so much that Monsanto engineers GM crops as the fact that Monsanto trademarks the genome of certain crops – often crops they haven’t even technically created, but only mapped out; thereby legally preventing farmers from farming unless they pay an utterly arbitrary license. That being said, these hipsters need to be more clear in their pitch on wether their proposed glowing tree will be open source or locked down by inefficient laws.

      1. You forgot the part where they let Monsanto crops cross-pollinate neighboring farms and then sue them for infringing their IP, invariably winning because, even though it’s the neighboring farms whose property has been infringed, no one can afford a protracted court-battle with Monsanto. I’m a capitalist completely in favor of cautious genetic engineering by Monsanto or anyone else. It’s their abuse of the justice system and their anti-free-market tactics I despise. And, my hobbies aside, not many people would identify me as a hipster.

        As for genetic patents, if they engineer it, I have no problem with them being granted a patent (or open-sourcing it if they’re of a mind to as in the case of some “hipsters”). But Monsanto, and many other agri and pharma companies, also patent gene sequences they merely discover the proteonomic expression of, and that’s genetic land-grabbing.

        TL/DR: Fuck monsanto, says the capitalist.

        1. There is much to criticise in Monsanto’s conduct, however they don’t actually sue farmers whose crops are inadvertently cross-pollinated, just those who claim their entire crop was magically cross-pollinated by Monsanto’s in the space of a year.

          1. I was under the impression that Monsanto had sued several farms in Canada for selling harvests that included specimens inadvertently pollinated by by Monsanto GM crops. If I’m in error, then the mistake is mine. I’ll research it after I’m done with work. Either way, thank you for the elucidation. I appreciate being corrected when I am in fact wrong.

          2. I can’t prove a negative but I think it’s likely your belief stems from misleading reports of this case.
            tl;dr : they’re a tiny bit less evil than you thought.

  5. It sounds like they want to raise money to synthesize codon optimized constructs for the expression of a luciferase system in plants. With the glowing luciferase expressing plants made thusfar you have to add a substrate, luciferin. 
    Engineering in the biosynthetic pathway for luciferin as well as a luciferase would be challenging, especially since luciferin biosynthesis seems relatively unstudied. 
    In any case, successful synthetic biology seems to require a fast, high throughput build-test-learn cycle and 65k$ is probably enough for one cycle of DNA synthesis, plant transformations and testing. I want a glowing plant, but I’m not too optimistic about this myself.

  6. GO GO GO!! 
    Making the whole plant glow may prove a bit tricky, I would consider engineering micro-ecosystem on top of the plant that does the glowing. Remember that in the nature, each thing has its purpose and must be energy-efficient, It you want to extend the functionality of a plant so that it can “serve” us, consider the energetic balance of the whole system..impact on environment is also something really important in this case. NEVERTHELESS:Using plants to emit lighit during the night cycle is the right way by all will make cities (the building blocks of our society) extremely energy-efficient and will open the way for the nature back where it was meant to be. Currently our kind evolves as cancer on this planet and we are facing the consequences. This must change as fast as possible for our own safety and prosperity.. 

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