Debate over GMO Glowing Plants Grows

June 5, 2013

5 Jun (THE SCIENTIST) – A Kickstarter project that promises donors Arabidopsis seeds transfected with firefly genes is causing a stir.  The Glowing Plant Project, which has raised more than $450,000 from nearly 8,000 backers on the crowd-funding website, promises to send donors seeds,for laboratory workhorse Arabidopsis thanliana and roses, that are engineered to carry firefly genes that will cause the plants to emit a faint blue-green glow.    

Arabidopsis thaliana, the plant that the Glowing Plant Project seeks to light up


But the project is sowing more than glowing plant seeds. It’s reigniting a debate over responsible uses of synthetic biology and the release of genetically modified organisms into the environment.  Objections to genetic modification typically emerge over the topic of GM crop plants or livestock. But the Glowing Plant Project has raised concerns from anti-GM activists and industry watchdogs alike. The ETC Group, an environmental organization that opposes all GM organisms, has even tried to launch its own campaign to stop the Kickstarter project.        


“We are extremely concerned that the USDA is not planning to regulate the first-ever field release of an organism engineered through synthetic biology technologies. . . . We urge the USDA to put a halt to this risky, unregulated pursuit,” the groups wrote in a letter to the US Department of Agriculture in April.         

In fact, the Silicone Valley entrepreneurs behind the Glowing Plant Project have satisfied the USDA’s existing regulations regarding the development of GM plants. The agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS), which regulates GM plants and tries to ensure that the plant pathogen Argobacterium—a commonly used transfection vehicle—will not escape once GM plants are released in the field. By only using Argobacterium in the early stages of development and using a gene gun—a technology that is not regulated by the USDA—to insert foreign genes into the seeds that will be sent to donors, the Glowing Plant Project team satisfied APHIS regulators that the plants pose no risk, reported Nature.       

The apparent lack of regulatory oversight concerns Todd Kuiken, who studies the ethical implications of DIY biology at the Washington, DC, think tank, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He told Nature that while the Glowing Plant Project does not seem especially risky, the regulatory precedents could prove more problematic with riskier projects in the future.  The Glowing Plant Project team is also planning to engineer glowing plants so that they will be able to survive only if fed a nutritional supplement, reducing the chance that they will spread in the wild.          

Though the technology to engineer plants that will glow has existed for nearly 3 decades, some experts are questioning the approach taken by the Glowing Plant Project. Ohio State University ecologist Allison Snow told Nature that the public will be more accepting of GM plant applications if they accomplish goals like treating disease or producing better biofuels.          

“This is such a frivolous application,” she said.