UPDATE 6/24/2016: The Glowing Plant Project has developed into a company, TAXA, and is seeking additional funding in their progress on the glowing plant as well as other ambitions. I’ll do a separate post about some of those soon. In June 2016, they hit their $200,000 goal on WeFunder.com. This is different from their kickstarter campaign in that if you contribute on WeFunder, you are essentially buying a piece of the company and therefore its profits. More updates to follow.
What is the Glowing Plant Project? It is mind blowing, that’s what. It’s not going to cure cancer, but it is going to get a whole lot of people excited about synthetic biology and its applications.
Glowing Plant Project: Its Early Beginnings
There’s no one better to introduce you to the glowing plant project than the creators themselves. The following video was the video that The Growing Plant Project team used to fuel their Kickstarter success:
Most people’s reaction: shut up and take my money. Pretty exciting right? First, let’s talk about timeline. The Kickstarter for the Glowing Plant Project kicked off in April of 2013. If you’re just learning about this, you’re like the person who finally decided to watch Breaking Bad when the last season was airing and you didn’t have to wait months between seasons for the story to continue (most of us have been waiting for nearly a year and a half now for the Glowing Plant Project to do their product launch).
It’s been a long road for those who got emotionally invested early and the project has had a few setbacks. Their initial goal was May of 2014, roughly a year after they started. Two years later, the team is still at it. They haven’t given up, and their detailed and science heavy update posts let you know right where they are, what their dealing with, and that they’re continually getting closer.
As for the price tag on this sucker? Well, it depends on what you buy. Their Kickstarter closed, which is how you could get in early, but they are now taking pre-orders. Check out the Glowing Plant Project prices below:
Glowing Plant Project: The Science and History
Now that we’ve got some of the obligatory “what everyone absolutely has to know right this minute” info out of the way, let’s get on to the science (yay!). First, how does bioluminescence work? There are a number of pathways and mechanisms that create bioluminescence in the natural world, but the kind that The Glowing Plant Project works with is luciferin and luciferase. Luciferin is an organic molecule that binds with the enzyme luciferase, and when energy (ATP) is introduced, a photon is emitted.
The first glowing plant was created back in the 1980’s. The lucky plant? Tobacco is the correct answer. If you want to read a more about it, check out this very elucidating news article from 1986. Here was the problem: in order to make the plant glow, scientists had to water the plants with a solution that contained luciferin. The plants had the gene for luciferase (the enzyme), but they didn’t have a recycling ability to turn the used up luciferin (aka oxyluciferin) back into usable luciferan.
Enter a Bunch of College Kids
So where did the Glowing Plant Project get their idea? How did they get past the luciferin/luciferase problem? The answer this time is the 2010 Cambridge iGem team. The Cambridge iGem team took the glowing plant idea to the next level by solving the recycling luciferin problem. In their iGem project, the looked at North American Fireflies and later Japanese Fireflies and engineered genes that would allow a recycling process of luciferan. If you want to see the details on the Cambridge iGem team, check out their project wiki or their detailed submission video. Very cool stuff.
Quality: How Bright Is the Glowing Plant?
I noticed some legal type small font on one of the photos from the Glowing Plant’s website that said it had a longer exposure time. Well, given enough exposure time you could make just about any light source as bright as the sun, so this begs the question: how bright can the Glowing Plant get? It turns out that the answer to this is incredibly hard to nail down. Light intensity is commonly measured in a few ways, including radiant intensity and luminous intensity. These are scientific ways of measuring light that are readily accepted by those in this field. However, other fields have different ways of measuring light. For instance, if you are an architect or interior designer, you’ll talk about “foot candles” which is a measure of the that a candle would cast one foot away while in a dark room. Sound strange? Well in biotechnology, the Glowing Plant team have borrowed from other biotech teams before them in using “Relative Light Units.”
In a blog post dated April 30th 2013, the Glowing Plant Project team answered a question that no one was asking: How bright can plants eventually grow? What people were more interested in (and just take a look at the comments and you’ll see) is how bright are the ones you’re growing right now? Well the answer is that they’re working on it. They’re using directed evolution (link goes to a video from Dr. Jamey Kain from The Glowing Plant Project explaining it all). Are they seeing results? Definitely. See their chart below. Are the results meaningful? Maybe, maybe not.
After nearly three hours of searching for an answer to the simple question: how bright is a relative light unit, I finally got an answer. The answer was- it depends. The long and short of it is this: relative light units are just that- relative. They are good enough for the job they are typically doing, which is helping scientists compare various luminescence. So if you have 20 samples, you’ll be able to tell which is brightest. However, devices that are used for relative light units aren’t often calibrated for absolute measurements.
There is a way to get calibrated, absolute measurements, though. Simply burn up a known amount of luminol and then you’ll know how all other measurements compare. The problem is that The Glowing Plant Project hasn’t given that information out, so there’s really no way to tell. (Want to know more about measuring bioluminescence of fireflies, luminol, and other agents? Check out this paper from Biotechniques.com by Robbert Créton and Lionel F. Jaffe).
And while it’s nice to think about trees lighting our streets instead of lamp posts, know this: every biological function comes with a biological cost. Some transgenic bioluminscent animals have demonstrated this. If you want energy in the form of light, you’re going to pay for it somewhere along the electron chain transfer, so to speak. The luciferin/luciferase process requires ATP (energy), afterall, so this becomes a game of efficiency as well as favorable novelty in their directed mutations. Still, engineers are clever ladies and gents, so let’s see what they can do before we deliver a verdict. Let’s explore brightness (light intensity) a bit more. What we do know from the graph above is that The Glowing Plant Project team is making improvements.
The Glowing Plant Project team have already had the plant on display. Why can’t the start selling and shipping? The answer to that is agrobacterium. Agrobacterium is a bacteria that injects DNA into plant cells and essentially hijacks the cells. This makes it a great tool for genetic engineering and synthetic biology, but it also puts this bacteria on the biological version of an “No fly list.” And while it is not illegal to use, there are strict regulations regarding the agrobacterium.
Without getting into all the sticky details, The Plant Health Inspection Service, which is an arm of the USDA, regulates any genetically modified plant that was made with or can be considered itself to be a pest, and agrobacterium is definitely on that list. (If you want all the sticky details of how Ag Bio is regulated, check out this article by none other than a certified lawyer who knows his biotech law). So in order to really sell this plant fully grown, they had to go back to the drawing board and use a gene gun and shoot some cultured cells with them.
For more information, you can visit The Glowing Plant Project’s own website (where you can read through the latest updates, order the plant, seeds, or maker kit, etc), read through their blog (they have great scientific, behind the scenes info on their progress and strategies and the synthetic biology processes they are following), or check out their Ted Talk (because let’s face it- Ted Talks are just plain awesome).