In April three biohackers from a California Do-It-Yourself biology lab, BioCurious, posted a Kickstarter campaign to crowdsource their plan to bioengineer a glowing plant. They asked for $65,000. But by the close of their campaign at midnight on Thursday, June 6, they had raised a remarkable $484,013. (Meanwhile, BioCurious itself is in financial trouble.) It was the first time anyone had kick-started a genetic engineering project. The group had hit upon a new method for funding biotech, one that’s faster, cheaper and requires less expertise than traditional grants or venture capital. Crowdsourcing does require public buy in, however, and this case raises a thorny hitch—ethically, environmentally and perhaps legally.
In exchange for the donations Antony Evans, Kyle Taylor and Omri Amirav-Drory promised to distribute the genetically modified seeds to supporters. More than 6,000 backers across the U.S. will be rewarded with seeds that were not vetted by any regulatory body for human safety, environmental risk or any other safeguard that bio-based companies such as Monsanto must meet. The plant campaign has reignited the controversy over genetically modified organisms. The ETC Group, a technology watchdog, and Friends of the Earth have publicly petitioned the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kickstarter and the team to kill the project. They even started a countercampaign called Kickstopper. At heart is the question: What can a team of DIYers do when they get their hands on biotechnology, and who can stop them?
Scientific American caught up with Evans and Taylor. An edited transcript of the interview follows.
Glowing plants have captured the imagination of your backers. Why?
Evans: It’s just such a simple idea. Ninety-nine percent of the people on the planet think that it’s science fiction. In fact, it has already been done to a degree. That combination of simplicity, science fiction and feasibility in one project doesn’t come along very often. The central goal behind this is to inspire people and educate them about this technology. That was the overarching vision for why to do this.
Taylor: For my senior project in high school I actually tried putting a green fluorescence gene (pGLOW) into an African violet. I’m embarrassed to say that I tried it—it was never going to work. I think we have an opportunity here to show a new model for how science and research can be conducted. For better or worse, I guess I drank the Kool-Aid. Academia has its playground that it plays in, industry has its playground that it plays in, and I think that leaves a gap for the DIYbio community to come in and do the sorts of projects that aren’t on the radar of either.
You’ve raised almost $500,000. How did it feel watching the dollars roll in on Kickstarter?
Taylor: At first it was exciting, and then I started having a freak-out. Where have we overpromised? What could we deliver? The science is still going to be challenging, and we’re not going to be replacing 60-watt lightbulbs with a plant anytime soon.
On the other hand, ETC asked Kickstarter to take your fund-raising campaign off the site. You’ve been criticized on two aspects: You have scientists who say this isn’t going to work. Then you have organizations that are saying that giving out genetically modified seeds poses an ecological disaster.
Evans: All the environmentalists are expressing concerns about light pollution and insects and things like that. That’s if we succeed. There’s no way we are going to affect any kind of light pollution. The glow from this project is, as we say, [nothing more than] glow-in-the-dark paint. We’ve really chosen something that is about as safe as you get—to quote George Church. We consulted with scientific advisors, but I think what’s become clear is that we should broaden that group to include ecologists.