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.
Whose idea was giving away genetically modified seeds?
Evans: I’m definitely the one who’s been pushing for this. We debated the seed question extensively for about six months. When I talk to people about the project—and I did over 100 user interviews on the Kickstarter page—the one thing that people really, really wanted was the seeds. If that’s what people want and it’s legal—and it is—then why not? I realize that it is controversial, but at the same time, if the idea is to inspire more people to get involved with this technology, I don’t think that we should shy away. This debate was going to come—now we are the poster child.
Kyle, what were your reservations?
Taylor: Whether I’d have the stomach to deal with the push-back that would inevitably happen. I think it’s important to take the release of something that’s been modified seriously. And to Antony’s credit, he’s done a ton of work talking with people to see what the regulatory framework is.
A critic would say that you found a legal loophole by using a gene gun rather than bacteria to insert the plant genes. But why shouldn’t you be subject to the same kind of environmental controls as Monsanto? [Regulatory testing for new genetically modified crops averages $35 million]
Evans: I think the question that needs to be raised is: What is the appropriate level of testing to do for a project like this? And I think we’re asking that question. I honestly don’t know the answer.
Aren’t you putting the cart before the horse? You’re offering 6,000 envelopes of genetically modified seeds. I could imagine that debate happening with 10 bags of seeds.
Evans: The thing to remember is this is fund-raising at the beginning of a project, not a polished piece. It’s a Kickstarter campaign, not a sale of a good. I think people who support the project realize that. When we release the seeds, it’s beholden on us to make sure that it’s as safe as possible. There are ways that we can make a plant unable to survive unless you water it with a certain chemical. Whether we use that strain of the plant is a question that we’re debating. When we raise that with backers, we get strong push-back. If we were to talk to someone at ETC, I think they would be strongly in favor of it.
Taylor: I think good stewardship is key, and I think that’s the conversation I would like to have. What is good stewardship?
It’s a difficult question.
Evans: I think that’s why we want to have a conference, why we’re bringing in advisors and why we want this debate to take place, because I think it’s not up to any individual to decide what good stewardship is. It’s a democratic process.
As we move forward, do you see us entering into this kind of engineered natural world? Is that where we’re heading?
<Evans: I believe so, but we will see. I think that would be fundamentally good for humanity. We’ll have better health care, we’ll have energy security, we’ll have food security, we’ll have tools that can help us deal with a growing population.
And is this project a benchmark, a gateway to that future?
Evans: I wouldn’t go that far. I think this is one step on a long journey.
Back to science fiction. Is a completely bioengineered world a future we want to embrace? And are we leading ourselves there without being conscious of it?
Evans: Do we have a choice? This is getting highly personal; I would go one philosophical step further. I’d argue that there is a natural force that exists over and beyond all of us as individuals that guides and directs these things. It’s almost a mistake for us to suggest that we, as a species, actually have control over that.
You’re talking about God.
Evans: I don’t want to put a word on it, but I wouldn’t argue.
Taylor: I come from a small little town in the middle of Kansas—so coming to the Bay Area, I was flabbergasted. Having a major metropolitan area where all the towns effectively bleed into each other was jaw-dropping. When you asked about whether or not we’re living in an engineered natural world, that’s what popped into my head. In a way, I guess we’re already there.
If you saw someone growing an enormous field of your glowing plants, what would your reaction be? Would it be unsettling?
Evans: That’s a trick question. I personally think that would be cool. I know that there are going to be other people who have another opinion.
Taylor: That would be cool.