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Bio-Hacking Plants?

the glow of by Toshihiro Oimatsu

the glow of (CC 2.0) by Toshihiro Oimatsu

Trees That Glow At Night?

Perhaps you saw the recent article in the NY Times online about a small group of biotechnology hobbyists and entrepreneurs who have started a project to develop trees that glow in the dark.

Is this a joke?

Well, apparently not….at least to the 7,000 people who, to date, have collectively pledged nearly $400,000 to support this Kickstarter project (including an additional project to produced a glow-in-the-dark rose).

Want to make a glowing plant yourself?

For a $250 pledge, you will receive from the project organizers the following: “DIY MAKER KIT: A copy of the book “How To Make A Glowing Plant”, a full set of instructions and all the ingredients you need to transform your own plant at home, in your lab or at school. BONUS: Glowing plant seeds.”

For an excellent description of how it’s done, Make magazine has published an online article entitled “DIY Synthetic Biology: Making Your Own Glowing Plants” that you can view here.

This is just one of the most recent examples of “Do It Yourself” (DIY) Biotech, a subject briefly explored in a previous post. But that was over two years ago. So, what’s new?

First, here’s a 10-min intro to the basic concepts of DIY Biotech, thanks to the folks at TED:

Hacking Science At Hackerspaces

What does “hacking” science mean? And what are “hackerspaces”?

Unfortunately, the term “hacker” has become synonymous with “computer criminal” to most people, thanks to our mass media. But broader definitions of “hacker” have come to include “enthusiasts”, “amateurs”, and “hobbyists” who have interest in, and knowledge of, a subject, and who also have a wish to experiment with (or tinker with) elements of this subject.

For example, someone who loves to cook may alter or change a particular recipe in order to improve it. One could say that this person has “hacked” the recipe and is, thus, a food preparation “hacker”. In this context, a “hackerspace” would be a community kitchen, in which the public could, perhaps, learn to cook and share and try out new recipes.

With regard to “hacking” science, please see examples of “citizen science” for an excellent overview of the current state of this subject, including bio-hacking.

Even if you don’t have the money or knowledge to do such science yourself, there may actually be community biotechnology labs in your city that provide the training and equipment.

Plant Bio-Hacking – Coming To A City Near You? (Or Already There!)

Several years ago a DIY Biotech hacker space called Genspace opened in NYC. (For more info, see A Visit to Genspace.)

Since then, other bio-hackerspaces have opened, including Biocurious in the San Francisco Bay area and, most recently, HiveBio in Seattle. For some bio-hackerspaces in Europe, please see: DIY Bio Europe, BiologiGaragen (Copenhagen), and La Paillasse (Paris). (Here’s a link to a list of local bio-hackerspaces.)

Bio-Hackers and the Future of GM Plants

Glowing Jade Plant by Matt Baume

Glowing Jade Plant (CC BY-SA) by Matt Baume

Just as computer “hackers” have significantly contributed to the current landscape of computer technology, bio-hackers (DIY plant biotechnologists) may contribute to future generations of GM plants.

According to Dr. Anastasia Bodner, a board member of Biology Fortified, Inc.:
“… genetic engineering now has a relatively low bar to entry. ‘Biohackers’ working with bacteria are already conducting genetic modification experiments in their garages and spare bedrooms, and there is nothing to stop them from applying their skills to plants — or animals — in the future.
“It’s becoming easier all the time. I think people are hungry for this kind of thing,” says Bodnar. “The jet packs that everybody wanted — I think it’s time for them to come out. If the marketplace isn’t providing that from the top down, you may see it from the bottom up.”
(from: Ref. 1 below)

Evidence that this “bottom-up” approach to funding plant genetic engineering is provided with the success of the Kickstarter “Glowing Plants” project described above. Update: This project has, however, sparked a debate.

It will certainly be interesting to see whether or not such “crowdfunding” of scientific endeavors proliferates. (I think that if I was still trying to fund a research lab, I’d probably check out sites such as Microryza.)

Recent news items:
BBC – Becoming biohackers

Huff Post – Biohackers Are Kickstarting Some Unregulated Experiments

Wired UK – European network aims to legitimise biohacking

Website:
DIY BIO

Reference

1. Cressey, D. (2013) “Transgenics: A New Breed.” Nature, Vol. 497, pp. 27–29. (Full Text)

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