"It puts synthetic biology in the same category as hate crimes and tobacco."

Kickstarter bans project creators from giving away genetically-modified organisms

Kickstarter is clamping down on genetically-modified organisms following the success of a project to genetically engineer glowing plants for use as additional lighting in people's homes. Earlier this week and without explanation, the crowdfunding website quietly altered its guidelines for project creators, introducing a new term that bans creators from giving away genetically-modified organisms as rewards to their online backers. [...] The company provided only the following canned statement: "we aim to be as open as possible while protecting the health and creative spirit of Kickstarter for the long term." Yet the move comes just days after a project called "Glowing Plants" successfully raised nearly half-a-million dollars.

The project was launched by a team of trained synthetic biologists, who want to insert bioluminescence genes from bacteria and fireflies into several types of plans -- arabidopsis and roses -- to make them glow in the dark. Project backers who pledged $40 or more were promised packets of seeds of the final glowing plant products. [...]

Amirav-Drory said he had not been in touch with Kickstarter about the change in policy, but expressed puzzlement about it, because his glowing plant project had been featured repeatedly on Kickstater's editor-curated project sections.

The creators maintain their project is legal under US law, and that the risk of cross-pollination is low because the main plant they're engineering, arabidopsis, is not native to the US. However, they also say they won't be able to send the seeds to countries in the European Union and other areas where GMO crops are widely curtailed. Meanwhile, Environmental advocates and some scientists outside of the project have expressed concerns that it may lead to a negative perception of synthetic biology, or set a worrisome precedent for unsupervised release of GMOs. One researcher recently told Nature that the plants were "frivolous."

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15 Responses:

  1. Boo. Now who's going to help me fund my bioluminescent tulip bacteria mashup for growing psychedelic paintings?

  2. Tom Lord says:

    The project was launched by a team of trained synthetic biologists, who want to insert bioluminescence genes from bacteria and fireflies into several types of plans

    No, the project was launched by synthetic biologists who want to provocatively poke at the weaknesses in the regulations of their field in order to put some money in their pockets from a bunch of rubes anxious to pay to be a part of the spectacle. In the history of human intellectual development they are right up there with shock jocks and porn kings only potentially more dangerous.

    • James says:

      How do you know they weren't guerrilla marketers from Indygogo?

      And seriously, what are the regulations that would have prevented them from doing this with out-of-pocket or unrestricted grant funds?

      • Tom Lord says:

        James as you probably know there are no regulations to really prevent someone from creating synthbio terrors and spreading them around. The innovation here is finding a way to train the general public to not only gaze upon this non-critically, but to get in the habit of helping to fund the work and assist with the dissemination.

  3. Tom, what is "dangerous" about these plants? How is this more of a threat than selling a new hybrid flower with an unusual color pattern?

    • MetaRZA says:

      We don't know what is dangerous about them. Which is exactly why they should be in the wild.

      • You can say the same thing about cross-bred hybrid plants, a technology humans have used for centuries.

        • James says:

          That's like saying you can say the same thing about handwriting as ticker tape.

          • Ru says:

            Oh? Are you saying that hybridisation is intrinsically harmless? In the plant kingdom, I offer Tifton 85. Easier to find examples in the animal kingdom... Africanised honeybees, anyone?

            • James says:

              No, you can write dangerous things in handwriting or ticker tape. It's just easier to read ticker tape than some people's handwriting. Meaning, with synthetic biology we have more information on which to make predictions of unintended consequences.

        • cmccabe says:

          Stop trying to think for yourself and give in to hysteria. If people rationally looked at science of food production rather than behaving like herd animals, we might not be able to do things like sell "organic" brown rice loaded with arsenic [ http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/magazine/2012/11/arsenic-in-your-food/index.htm ] Not to mention, with GMOs we wouldn't have to apply as many toxic pesticides, which would no doubt stimulate the economy less.

        • MetaRZA says:

          Mendacious argument is mendacious. Next you will be claiming that nothing can be artificial because all the elements to produce that thing came from nature.

          Or to put it another way: put a wolf and a bitch in heat together and you end up with wolf/dog pups roughly 60 days later. Put soy and fish together, you will not end up with a hybrid plant; to get a soy/fish hybrid requires a huge amount of human intervention. To claim both types of hybridisation are equivalent is to proclaim one's stupidity.

          • Tim says:

            You know what's mendacious? This "unnatural" = "dangerous" meme you're pushing.

            You're wringing your hands about specific genetic manipulations which are very low risk. Whether it's glowy plants or evil scary fish/plant hybrids, it's not about doing crazy mad science at random until something works but you don't know how. They're splicing specific and short sequences into the plant genome, ones which code for proteins that the source organism makes and the target doesn't. The result is simply a plant which makes additional proteins.

            And thanks to sequencing you can verify that the intended splices are the only changes. It's a more controlled process than hybridizing a wolf and a dog, quite narrow in scope. It's possible to be quite confident that no monsters have been created.

            Shorter version: fearmongering about adding fluorescent proteins or luciferase to houseplants proclaims your stupidity.

  4. FYI, these plants wouldn't look anything like that impressive photo.
    That image comes from a research paper from the 1980s. It is not a photograph, but an autoradiograph. i.e., the plant was mooshed down onto a sheet of X-ray film for several minutes, essentially like taking a photograph with a really long exposure time.
    The actual 'glow' is almost imperceptible to the human eye, even in pitch darkness.
    Sorry to piss on everybody's strawberries.

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