Old news, but a few really smart people are serious about creating luminous plants, and they want you to fund them:
“I’m walking today in Tel Aviv along a boulevard, and there are huge trees around me, and I’m thinking how beautiful it would be at night if they were faintly glowing.”
Synthetic biologist Omri Amirav-Drory’s musings about a world where we grow our light resources, might not be all that distant. He is one of three members of a Kickstarter project that promises to grow glowing plants in a DIY biohacking effort that has this week seen its target smashed. At the time of writing 4,757 backers had pledged a total of $272,698 (£175,000) with 29 days to go. The initial target was just $65,000.
The project, which has the support of genetics professor George Church (he of the Neanderthal cloning controversy), appears to have captured the public’s imagination — and that’s the whole point.
“What we’re trying to do is inspire and educate people about what’s possible today,” says Amirav-Drory, who is also CEO and founder of Genome Compiler, software that helps users design and debug DNA. It’s key to the project, which uses luciferase — an enzyme that makes fireflies and some fungi and bacteria glow that has already been used to make tobacco plants glow — to modify the DNA sequence of Arabidopsis, a small plant. That new section of DNA will be printed at Cambrian Genomics and transferred to the plant in a community lab (a process reserved for the prototype stage).
“To be honest,” says Amirav-Drory, “it’s actually annoying that I have to do it. I wish that other people would do it — I wish that 100,000 people would use my software to to solve another 100,000 problems in the world. Sometimes you have to show what can be done and part of the thing we want to show is it’s so cheap you can crowdfund it. You don’t have to be in industry or academia.”
There are, of course, many political and philosophical implications to work like this. Even though it is sold partially as an environmental solution to energy problems, many environmentalists are fanatically opposed to the project (though many are also in support.) To be fair to their position, once technology like this becomes more prolific, there will undoubtedly be an impact on the environment. Mistakes will also be made.
But their position is also unrealistic. Humans have, will, and must make a massive impact on their environment. Trying to decrease impact is ultimately a losing battle.
We should, instead, change our approach. Let’s stop classifying all change as “damage” to the environment (for that matter, let’s define “environment” in a more meaningful way.) We should think more in terms of “positive” and “negative” changes, in respect to certain goals and values that we hold. The words “positive” and “negative” have little meaning outside of the context of some values; some desired ends.
Ultimately, on a long enough timeline, everything on the planet will be fundamentally changed and altered by conscious action. This idea is offensive and jarring to many people. But if intelligent beings are to grow and thrive on this world, I see it as something of an inevitability.
So, I tend to support projects like this; which are small steps toward something that we are going to inevitably do in the future. Both the Precautionary Principle and the Conservation Principle are too short sighted. We must grow; to live mankind must exploit and change the environment. With a little more effort, we can make sure these changes are positive ones.
Here is a link to the Kickstarter campaign. Here’s a none-too-informative video I found online:
I suppose we can’t hope to escape a discussion about glowing plants without mentioning Avatar. The pop science Gods demand it. So here you go: