What If We Used Trees to Light Our Streets Instead of Electric Lamps?


That’s the question that a core team of people on a Kickstarter campaign meant to create illuminating plant life want to know, and they want to know NOW!

So what exactly is going on here? From the Kickstarter campaign website on the Glowing Plants:

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.  Flowers of the plant are then dipped into a solution containing the transformed bacteria. The bacteria injects our DNA into the cell nucleus of the flowers which pass it onto their seeds which we can grow until they glow!  You can see this process in action in our video.

Once we have proven the designs work we will then insert the same gene sequence into the plant using a gene gun.  This is more complicated, as there’s a risk the gene sequence gets scrambled, but the result will be unregulated by the USDA and thus suitable for release.

Funds raised will also be used to support our work to develop an open policy framework for DIY Bio work involving recombinant DNA.  This framework will provide guidelines to help others  who are inspired by this project navigate the regulatory and social challenges inherent in community based synthetic biology.  The framework will include recommendations for what kinds of projects are safe for DIY Bio enthusiasts and recommendations for the processes which should be put in place (such as getting experts to review the plans).

So far, as of writing this post, the campaign has raised over 700% of their goal.  The campaign stops tomorrow, June 7, 2013, but they’ve already raised almost $500,000 dollars!  The initial startup campaign?  Only $65,000.

Some commentary I found interesting – from the Glowing Plant website (at – what do you think of a GMO plant type like this?  They plainly state that the plant is not edible and not made for food:

Aren’t GMOs evil?  Luckily, that’s one question we don’t typically tend to get – although some people have definitely told us as much.

Like it or not, biology is the science of the 21st century, the way the steam engine dominated the first half of the 20th century. And just as there was a backlash against steam technology – it was going to put everybody out of work, and cows were going to drop dead in fright at the sight of a 20 mph steam train – there is a lot of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt about genetic engineering and genetically modified organisms. To the point that creations like the vitamin fortified “Golden Rice” are now banned from countries where they could be saving thousands of lives. I’m sure that the first humans to discover fire were feared and reviled by their neighbors. And I’m sure those fire makers were concerned that their invention might “fall in the wrong hands”.

As with all technology, genetic engineering is not inherently good or bad – it all depends how you apply it. Science fiction stories are full of the hypothetical abuses of genetic engineering. Then again, they are also full of Midichlorians, and nobody takes those serious. More down-to-earth: yes, genetic engineering has been used to create quasi-monopolies on seeds and herbicides. But it is also being used to produce insulin and hundreds of other lifesaving drugs, develop cures for inherited diseases through gene therapy, and to make sure the next billion members of humanity will have enough to eat.

Monoculture and loss of crop diversity may be a really bad idea, ecologically speaking. And depriving farmers of the right to save and replant seed could arguably be called evil. But those are the products of a screwed up agroindustrial system, not the inevitable consequence of GMOs. As for the health concerns with GMOs – well, we’re not creating a food crop here, but as a scientist I would rate eating a tomato with fish genes about as dangerous as eating a fish-and-tomato dinner – and far less risky than eating a new tropical fruit I’ve never seen before.

When it comes to synthetic biology and DIYbio, I feel we’re standing alongside those early fire makers, discussing whether only the village elders should be allowed to handle fire, or whether we should teach everyone how to deal with it safely. Luckily, we know how that decision turned out…

The team:


What do you think of this Kickstarter?  Is it a good thing?  Is it a bad thing?  How do you feel about GMOs that aren’t food based?  Leave a reply below!

SpongeBob’s Aurora Borealis – San Diego’s Red Tide

Over the last few weeks in the San Diego area (and I’m guessing several locations within a few tens of miles from there, too), a strange thing has been happening – at night, the tide is glowing.  The rolling waves of water are emanating a crazy dim glow, almost as if it’s dreaming – whenever I see the ocean in my head, it’s always sleeping, I have no idea why.  Check out this amazing video:

Meet the little dinoflagellate that’s causing all of this awesome low-level illuminating beauty:

This is Lingulodinium Polyedrum, also known as the little dinoflagellate that is responsible for Red Tides and mollusk death during these periods of “red” tides, is not poisonous to humans, according to biological oceanographer Peter Franks.  Dr. Franks teaches at the University of Southern California at San Diego, and is a pretty intelligent dude.  I came across an article that was a back-and-forth email exchange between Dr. Franks and Miriam Goldstein of Deep Sea News.  On the subject of Red Tides making you sick and WHY they are bioluminescent:

Frequently asked question number 2: Why do the dinoflagellates bioluminescence?

As far as we know (which is surprisingly not very far) the bioluminescence both deters grazers of the dinoflagellates (who likes eating food that flashes in your mouth?), and also attracts the predators of the grazers which are mostly visually oriented organisms such as fish (the so-called “burglar hypothesis”).

Frequently asked question number 3: When I surf in a red tide I get sick (ear aches, sinus infections, etc.). Why?

My usual answer is that you should bathe more. Or at least check to see whether you get sick when there isn’t a red tide.

However … a student of mine (Meg Rippy – please give her a postdoc) has some evidence that red tides can decrease the mortality of human pathogenic bacteria that get into the nearshore waters. These bacteria normally die pretty quickly; they may die slower during a red tide, perhaps due to the increased amounts of organic material in the water. So perhaps your ear infection is because of other bacteria that are present in higher concentrations in a red tide than they would normally be. (Please give us funding to pursue this.)

It seems as though this is something that will have more explanation in the future as we discover more about the dinoflagellates and how they chemically interact.  Stay tuned!

Dr. Franks had a cool experiment to try – get a clear bottle and fill it with knee-deep tide water.  Take the bottle home and stick in the dark for a few hours, and then shake it in the dark.  The Lingulodinium Polyedrum will release some bioluminescent material into the water!  If you add ammonia, says Dr. Franks, all of the Lingulodinium Polyedrum will dump ALL of their bioluminescent material all at once, like a little fireworks show in a bottle!  This is, however, terminal to the dinoflagellates.  If this kills your conscience, don’t do it.  I, however, cannot wait to have some blue fireworks in a bottle!

Thanksa, Species Identification!

David Gallo Talks Underwater Illumination at TED

Bio-luminescence in sea creatures is a phenomena that I have been interested in for some time – Mother Nature is an amazingly psychopathic mommy figure full of very interesting adaptations of human and animal behavior.  Things like bio-luminescence, Circadian Rhythm, and the body’s generation of Melatonin are all things that fall under this category.  Mother Nature,  you so crazy!

A scientist and underwater explorer named David Gallo talked at TED back in 2007 about this very phenomenon.  Check out the video below – you won’t be disappointed.  David says that we’ve discovered about 3% of our planet, and every time that we find a new place in the ocean, it is usually filled with exciting new discoveries.

Mycena lux-coeli – The Coolest Mushroom I Have Ever Seen

Can you imagine a salad full of these?  It would be the trippiest salad you have ever seen:


What you see here is a Mycena lux-coeli mushroom, which grows in Japan during the rainy season on fallen Chinquapin trees.  This species is exhibiting a quality called bioluminescence, which stems from a reactive protein or pigment in the plant.  These mushrooms, which the local folk refer to as shii no tomobishi-dake (an almost literal translation of “chinquapin glow mushrooms”) give off light when a chemical called luciferin gets oxidized, which makes the luciferin emit visible light – greenish-white visible light.  That’s not an evil-sounding pigment, is it?  Funny enough, in Latin, lucifer means “light giver.”  Who would have known!

Like other fungi that grow in damp conditions, Mycena lux-coeli is no different – it seems to flourish in the wet forests on the fallen trees, but unfortunately only lasts a few days and dies once the rain stops.

Nature, you are awesome.



Thanks, Pink Tentacle and ZipcodeZoo!