Glowing Plants Could Act As Biological Night Lights

By: | August 22nd, 2013

Venus Fly Trap

Venus Fly Trap (Image Courtesy www.wikimedia.com)

An endearing and somewhat scary piece of human folklore centers around the mad scientist who is at least slightly kooky and sacrifices everything we hold dear to accomplish his ambitious but diabolical scheme. We know him as Frankenstein but he has other names in our and other cultures.

Synthetic biology is one branch of science that causes people a bit of anxiety because it involves transgenics, molecular biology, population biology and ecology, among others. It seems similar to Frankenstein’s continual quest to “mess with the laws of the universe” and the natural order of life created by God. The following schematic outlining the fields of synthetic biology certainly reads like an attempt to take over the world. Not one aspect of life would be untouched if all dreams of synthetic biologists came true. Areas of SB:

  • biosensors
  • biomaterials
  • biofuels
  • diagnostics
  • biomedicine
  • therapeutics
  • drugs
  • vaccines
  • bioremediation
  • food ingredients
  • fine chemicals
  • physics
  • engineering science
  • biology
  • molecular biology
  • systems biology
  • computer science
  • chemistry

Promise of Synthetic Biology

It seems Frankenstein gets carried away with fanciful ideas and that’s what sends him down the slippery slope to madness. Can the same be said for synthetic biologists? Can they keep things in perspective and make sure the Earth’s ecosystem is protected?

A recent project to create plants that glow in the dark (grow in the dark?) is an illustration in point. It would be fascinating if your house and all its rooms were lit up by living plants or a small plant on your nightstand provided a nightlight or if fish swimming in your aquarium glowed in the dark. Or imagine bringing your spouse a glowing rose on your anniversary?

A Mad Grab For DNA Patents

The United States Supreme Court recently ruled human genes cannot be patented. We know this was a temporary victory as powerful interests will continue to try to “lord over” the building blocks of life created through billions of years of evolution. For better or worse DNA sequences created by humans, that is, synthetic biologists, do not fall into the category of “the sacred.” This means there is a big financial incentive to create life forms that can be patented to produce profits.

Kickstarter Glowing Plant Project

Whereas Frankenstein had to toil away in secret, a group of scientists seeking to fund the “Glowing Plant Project” have turned to Kickstarter. The project at the moment is non-commercial but the prospect of the creation of seeds for a glowing plant has industry analysts worried. They believe unsupervised distribution of synthetic organisms has the potential for severe unintended consequences ie: 30 Foot Killer Venus Fly Traps!

Scientists heading the project have developed a synthetic biology gene writing software and developed DNA molecules in the laboratory.  They are also using a glow-in-the-dark tobacco plant first engineered by scientists in the 1980′s. There have been successful attempts at growing continuously glowing bacteria. The project raised $400,000 many times the original funding goal of $65,000 and the scientists promised to develop glowing roses with the extra funds.

The Meaning of Frankenstein

In an article reviewing Danny Boyle’s stage production of Frankenstein for the BBC “Frankenstein: 10 Possible Meanings” writer Tom Geoghegan provides a look at the meaning of the monster including:

  1. Science can go too far. ie: Frankenfoods like those consumed by Americans that make them obeses and prone to cardiovascular disease. These foods certainly make big profits for their makers and do a lot for the pocketbooks of doctors but for those who consume them consequences are dire.
  2. Actions Have Consequences
  3. If you try to play God you’ll get yourself in trouble.

David Schilling

David lives in the Allston, Boston, Massachusetts, and regularly visits MIT, Harvard, Boston University, Northeastern, Boston\\’s leading companies and labs, the stacks at Boston Atheneaum and Boston Public Library to uncover and research story ideas. You can also find David on Google+.

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