How many do-it-yourself bioengineering enthusiasts does it take to change a light bulb? It seems 8 433 is the right number. That’s how many individuals backed the Glowing Plant Project on the crowdfunding Web site, Kickstarter, earlier this year. If this sounds counterintuitive, read on…
Spearheaded by two biologists and a former Bain & Company management consultant, the Glowing Plant Project has at least two goals. Long-term: creating trees that glow so powerfully through bioluminescence that they can function as street lights. Short-term: promoting grassroots innovation within the realm of synthetic biology. You no longer have to be Monsanto to hack Mother Nature.
The quest for irrigatable illumination has been going on since the mid-1980s, when researchers first successfully transplanted a gene present in fireflies into tobacco plants. By now you’d expect to see phosphorescent Marlboros casting an eerie glow in what few dive bars still allow smoking, but progress has been slow.
Things sped up last year after former Bain consultant Antony Evans watched biologist Omri Amirav-Drory give a presentation on the possibilities of using living organisms to produce energy, fuel, plastics and fertilisers. Evans was inspired by Amirav-Drory’s suggestion that armchair tinkerers, utilising sophisticated but easy-to-use software and a “biological app store”, might one day assemble the genetic material for producing a “renewable, self-assembled, solar-powered, sustainable street lamp” – in other words, a bioluminescent oak tree.
Read more in PM’s February 2014 issue – on sale 20 January.