The Scary Side of Synbio Glowing Plants

If you’re like me, the concept of synthetic biology—the application of engineering techniques to the building blocks of life—is pretty hard to get your head around. I get synthesizing, say, material to make clothes out of. But synthesizing new life forms? Apparently, while I stand slack-jawed, the novel technology is quickly going mainstream. Here’s the New York Times:

Hoping to give new meaning to the term “natural light,” a small group of biotechnology hobbyists and entrepreneurs has started a project to develop plants that glow, potentially leading the way for trees that can replace electric street lamps and potted flowers luminous enough to read by.

What could be more innocuous than plants that generate useful light? And moreover, the “glowing plants” project isn’t the work of a big, bad multinational like Monsanto or a corporate-funded academic lab, the Times notes, but rather a “small group of hobbyist scientists in one of the growing number of communal laboratories springing up around the nation as biotechnology becomes cheap enough to give rise to a do-it-yourself movement.”

And they’re not financing the project by tapping Wall Street or big banks, but rather the democratic cash-raising method of our age par excellence, the Kickstarter campaign. The project launched April 23 with a goal to raise $65,000; it has already exceeded $480,000 in pledges, aided by glowing—so to speak—reports in Tech Crunch, Fast Company, and Forbes, as well as the promise that anyone who commits at least $40 will “receive seeds to grow a glowing plant at home.”

What could possibly go wrong? Well, I don’t know much about the science of creating living lamps. But I do think it’s important to think out the broader implications of synbio—as the novel technology is known—and ask questions about how its release from the lab into the world is regulated. Which is evidently pretty lightly—this consortium is casually promising to distribute glowing seeds to hundreds of people.

I can’t think of a better source for examining the promise and perils of synbio than this much-cited 2007 essay by the eminent physicist—and climate change skeptic—Freeman Dyson. In it, he laid out a rosy vision for what he called the “domestication of biotechnology.” Here’s Dyson:

There will be do-it-yourself kits for gardeners who will use genetic engineering to breed new varieties of roses and orchids. Also kits for lovers of pigeons and parrots and lizards and snakes to breed new varieties of pets. Breeders of dogs and cats will have their kits too. Domesticated biotechnology, once it gets into the hands of housewives and children, will give us an explosion of diversity of new living creatures, rather than the monoculture crops that the big corporations prefer.

What if these new life forms behave in ways we can’t predict—or mutate in ways we can’t predict—altering food chains or larger biosystems?

And what about the obvious dangers—what if these God-like “housewives and children” (ugh) turned away from conjuring cuddly creatures and start creating ones designed to bare their fangs, monsters instead of pets? You don’t even need to presume malicious intent to find reason for concern: What if some novel beast designed for cuteness escapes, goes rogue, and turns out to have unintended malign powers? Then there are the obvious questions: What if these new life forms behave in ways we can’t predict—or mutate in ways we can’t predict—altering food chains or larger biosystems? Dyson acknowledged the “real and serious dangers” of synbio, and allowed that “rules and regulations will be needed to make sure that our kids do not endanger themselves and others.” But he waved off that task—not his problem. “I leave it to our children and grandchildren to supply the answers,” he cheerfully declared.

But regulating novel technologies has proven difficult here in the United States. Genetically modified seeds burst onto US farm fields in the mid-’90s with a notoriously lax regulatory process, as I showed in this post. Still, the process is time-consuming, and it has been known to occasionally at least delay particularly problematic crop varieties, like new ones genetically rigged to withstand not one but two herbicides. Next came nanotechnology, which takes advantage of the fact that common substances like silver behave differently when they’re really, really small. Nanotech is now ubiquitous, showing up everywhere from underwear to toothpaste. But as the Pulitzer-winning investigative journalist Andrew Schneider showed in an eye-opening 2010 series, the small stuff poses significant risks, has received little independent testing, and is barely regulated.

The excellent watchdog org ETC Group, which seeks to place novel technologies under democratic oversight, has launched a rival “Kickstopper” campaign to halt such projects until a proper regulatory regime can be put into place.

In the spirit of Professor Dyson, let me offer a prediction for the future. I imagine that synbio’s current reputation as a democratic technology dominated by well-meaning amateurs will last just long enough to convince people that it requires little or no regulation. While this laissez-faire regime congeals into a settled fact, big agrichemical, pharmaceutical, and life-sciences firms will quietly take it over, eventually dominating the research and deployment of Dyson’s wondrous toys. Monsanto has already bought its way into the space—in January, it bought an R&D lab from and entered a research collaboration with Synthetic Genomics, a company that uses synthetic microbes to “improve crop productivity.”

Unless we have a serious national reckoning on synbio, what we risk leaving our children and grandchildren is the knotty problem of trying to convince an entrenched, little-regulated industry that the power of generating life forms should be used for the broad interests of society, not the narrow ones of shareholders.  

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We didn't know what to expect when we told you we needed to raise $400,000 before our fiscal year closed on June 30, and we're thrilled to report that our incredible community of readers contributed some $415,000 to help us keep charging as hard as we can during this crazy year.

You just sent an incredible message: that quality journalism doesn't have to answer to advertisers, billionaires, or hedge funds; that newsrooms can eke out an existence thanks primarily to the generosity of its readers. That's so powerful. Especially during what's been called a "media extinction event" when those looking to make a profit from the news pull back, the Mother Jones community steps in.

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