The future looks bright!

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Imagine how different the streets would look at night if there were no street lamps; if instead, roads were lined with big trees that glowed. It sounds like something out of the movie Avatar, but science is getting close. A group of entrepreneurs and hobbyists led by Anthony Evans have launched a new program to make it happen.

The technology to make plants and animals glow is not new; it has actually been around for decades. The most widely used glowing agent has been a gene for green fluorescent protein (GFP). The GFP gene was first identified in jelly fish, and has been added to the DNA of many plants and animals including monkeys and cats. Yes, there are glowing cats!!

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But the project to create glowing street lamps would use a different set of glowing genes, borrowed from fireflies.

Fireflies have a gene for an glowing enzyme called luciferase. This gene was identified and transplanted into plants way back in the 1980s. But there’s a catch. Luciferase only glows when a substrate, called luciferin, is also present. The plants modified in the 1980s had luciferase, but not luciferin, and so they only glowed if they were artificially fed luciferin.

It was not until 2010 that scientists solved this problem and were able to transfer a six-gene sequence coding for both luciferin and luciferase. This enabled scientists at Stony Brook University a create a tobacco plant that glowed all by itself.

The group at Stony Brook used genes for luciferin and luciferase that were cut out of a marine bacterium’s DNA. These genes were then added, or spliced into the tobacco plant genome. This general process of removing genes from one organism and adding them into another organism’s DNA is what we know as genetic engineering. A newer, and similar process, is called synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is almost the same as genetic engineering, except the genes to be transplanted are synthesized in a lab rather than taken from a living organism. If scientists know the genetic sequence of the gene that they want to insert, they can actually build it.

Antony Evans’ group hopes to use synthetic biology to eventually create their streetlamp trees. However, they will begin small by created a glowing Arabidopsis plant. Arabidopsis is in the mustard family, and is frequently used as a test plant in science.

One of the largest challenges facing the project will be creating trees that glow brightly enough to be useful. The brightness of the light will depend on how much of the tree’s energy can be directed towards glowing. None of the glowing plants that have been created so far have glowed very brightly, but in 2010, a group of genetic engineers at the University of Cambridge created bacteria that glowed brightly enough to read a book by.

All of the signs point to the definite possibility of glowing streetlamp trees. To me, that possibility sounds like something out of the best sci-fi fantasy world ever, and I could not be more excited. However, some groups are concerned about the possibility of uncontrolled, widespread distribution of glowing seeds.

Part of what makes the Evans group’s project unique is that it is not connected to a large institution. The project is being run on donations, and the group plans to distribute glowing seeds to many of their donors. This is the first project of its kind to promise to release genetically modified seeds to the public. And although there is no reason to think this will be dangerous, it is nonetheless kind of revolutionary.

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5 responses to “The future looks bright!

  1. This is super-cool. But there seems to be some pretty staunch opposition to releasing these plants into the environment, any thoughts on why that is?

    • Yeah, that is a great point. I’m not an expert, but from what I know there are two basic arguments against this project.
      (1) The first argument goes something like this: Releasing these engineered seeds into the wild is irresponsible and could cause environmental harm.

      That is a very vague objection because it is really hard to predict what will happen once any seeds get out into complicated ecosystems. While it is important to be careful about what we release and the damage that introduced plants could cause, there is no reason to think that the plants created in this experiment could cause a problem. Why? These plants do not have any toxins, so they are pretty vulnerable to herbivores. In addition, there is no competitive advantage that makes the plants with a glowing gene more successful, so the glowing gene will not become widespread.

      In my opinion, this first objection is not valid, and is more along the lines of unfounded fear (sorry, I know that is harsh…). However, I DO think that this case highlights some loopholes in U.S. policy. This brings me to the second argument against this project.

      (2) Regulation of synthetic biology is not sufficient.

      Right now, the release of genetically modified plants is regulated by a law for plant pests. So, if you want to release genetically modified plants that are not pests, you can get permission to bypass regulation. Or at least a precedent has been set that allows synthetic biology projects like this to avoid regulation. This project is hoping to receive the same exemption.

      While this project to create glowing trees is probably harmless, there is clearly room for some problematic releases to sneak through regulation. As more projects like this one pop up, I think regulation needs to be reevaluated and tightened.

  2. OOOo! Do you think we’ll be able to buy glowing pets any time soon? And would glowing cats have trouble catching birds? That would help out all the song birds….

  3. Pingback: Illustration of the world of synthetic biology: a new phase in science | Taking Science to the People·

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