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October 4, 2013

Glowing plants illuminate regulatory debate

(Continued)

Dana Perls, a food and technology campaigner for Friends of the Earth, said that this interpretation of U.S. statutes could mean that dozens of other synthetic biology projects in the pipeline could also escape regulation.

"What they're doing is taking the glowing plant developers' word that it will be safe without knowing what risks might be involved," Perls said. "This is precedent-setting."

Evans says concerns are overblown. He said the company has taken numerous precautions — in plant species selection, how it transports the materials — to prevent any issues: "We are being very prudent in how we are doing this."

Even before the controversy erupted, project partner Kyle Taylor — who said the environmental concerns are "constantly in the back of my mind" — had been tinkering around with various biocontainment methods. For instance, he said, he could try to make the plant deficient in a certain kind of vitamin such as B7 so that their caretakers would have to regularly give them an infusion of the nutrient. If they were to escape into someone's garden, they would likely not survive.

"Where I come from, there's this idea of stewardship, of taking care of land you grow," said Taylor, 30, a Stanford University-trained plant biologist who is from the farming community of Abilene, Kan. "I think it applies in this case."

Evans argued that a highly regulated process for synthetic biology might have prevented entrepreneurs such as him from getting involved in the first place and, like many others in the biotech industry, thinks that oversight needs to be scaled back, not built up.

"We need to find cost-effective ways for more start-ups to bring these kinds of products to market," he said. "Only if we do this can the economic and social promise of the technology be realizable."

And those who missed the Glowing Plant Project's Kickstarter campaign won't have long to despair. Taylor, Evans and their colleague Omri Amirav-Drory, 35, quickly announced that supporters could still buy a packet of 50 to 100 seeds for $50 or an actual plant itself for $100 from the company's website. And for those willing to wait until 2015, the company said it hoped to have a new product on the market: a glowing rose for $150.

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