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October 4, 2013

Glowing plants illuminate regulatory debate

(Continued)

"We're not expecting extremely bright. We're aiming glow-in-the-dark, stars-on-the-ceiling-type light. The first batch is not going to replace your bedroom light, but in the longer term that's the goal," Evans said.

That kind of future thinking was why the Glowing Plant Project's Kickstarter fundraising campaign, which officially began in April, was wildly popular from the start. While the company had hoped to raise a modest $65,000, it brought in $484,013 in just 44 days. A typical comment from a donor: "My dreams of having a greenhouse rose garden/glowing Avatar-like wonderland will soon be realized!"

The project soon ran into trouble, however. Deeming it "a new biotech threat coming from Silicon Valley," the environmental watchdog ETC Group started an online petition calling on Kickstarter to shut down the project. Nearly 14,000 people signed it.

In August, Kickstarter responded to the debate by announcing that it had amended its rules to ban all genetically modified rewards for donors, putting such gifts in the same category as drugs and firearms. While donors who supported the Glowing Plant Project would still get their genetically modified seeds, they would be the last. Kickstarter said it recognized it had sparked discussion within the scientific community about whether its platform was the best place to release synthetic or genetically modified organisms.

The Glowing Plant Project is at the forefront of an emerging field known as synthetic biology. Known as genetic engineering on steroids, the research aims to create new life-forms for practical purposes. The definition is still evolving, but the science — which lies at the intersection of biology, engineering and computational bioinformatics — usually involves modifying organisms to transform them into miniature factories for producing things such as medicine, food flavorings or even biofuels.

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