The distribution of an estimated 600,000 seeds would be, by far, the largest release of a synthetically engineered organism to the general public. The recipients will be able to plant the seeds in any standard flower pot and, with enough light and water, grow a glowing version of a small winter annual with oval-shaped leaves that is related to mustard.
It is an event that supporters are looking forward to with giddy excitement but also one that has sparked worry in Washington about whether existing laws and statutes are adequate if something goes wrong and the seeds upset the balance of the environment.
The team is confident they can grow a plant that gives off light — scientists have been able to create glowing plants as far back as in the 1980s. What they don’t know yet is how bright they can make it. They plan to announce Friday that they have successfully created an early prototype of glowing seeds.
For Antony Evans and his colleagues, the experiment represents the first step toward the ultimate goal of creating sustainable natural lighting. They imagine a world where light bulbs are filled with DNA from fireflies and jellyfish and bioluminescent trees replace streetlights.
“Our project is a demonstration of what’s possible,” said Evans, 33, who has an MBA and is the Glowing Plant Project’s manager.
A generation ago, the process of manipulating an organism’s genes required millions of dollars in sophisticated equipment and years of trial and error. Now it can be done in a garage with secondhand parts ordered off the Internet in a few days. Thanks to advances in computational power, the cost of reading 1 million base pairs of DNA (the human genome has approximately 3 billion pairs) has fallen from upwards of $100,000 to a mere 6 cents.
That has allowed entrepreneurs to enter the field with minimal investment. The team, keeping their exact location a secret because of worries about activists potentially destroying their work, is starting its first experiments this month on hundreds of seedlings lined up on tables in their makeshift lab.
The team is not looking to reinvent the wheel. Working off previously published papers, they have decided to take genes from a bioluminescent marine bacterium and insert it into seedlings of a small flowering plant that’s known as Arabidopsis.
The process of creating the glowing plant, as the team describes it, is simple: They input the DNA sequences from the bacterium into a computer and a program modifies the DNA sequence to make it work in plants. The team then e-mails the file containing the sequence of letters (G, T, C, A) to a company in China, wires $8,000, and a few weeks later they get in the mail the DNA, synthesized by Chinese technicians. They then take the DNA and use a machine called a gene gun — because it’s earliest version was a modified air pistol — to insert it into the plant.