REALITY CHECK FOR SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY
It has been some 3 and a half years since the incredibly successful Glowing Plant Kickstarter campaign. At 484.013 USD the by far largest synthetic biology Kickstarter campaign of all time promised to create auto bio-luminescent capable at glowing in the dark without the addition of extra chemicals. As we previously reported the initiative later morphed into TAXA Biotechnologies, which received another 758.818 USD in funding via WeFunder.
The project has become so popular that is largely considered synonymous with the growing Bio-Hacking/DIY Biology movement. The premise behind is to view a living organism as hardware and its DNA as the software. DIY biologist propagate the idea of bioengineering being managed from a computer screen, de-skilling and democratizing the field and thus allowing small teams of industry insiders, but also amateurs, to participate in an industry traditionally dominated by few big players. With prices for DNA sequencing and writing falling exponentially, so would the barriers to entry to the very profitable pharma/biotechnology industry, respectively a small startup operating from someone's garage would become a modern day Apple. The Glowing Plant project is an embodiment of this movement and Glowing Plant founder Anthony Evans and his team understood this very well. In fact they were selling not just their bio-luminescent plants, but also a proof of concept for the economy of the future, as can be seen in the following TEDx talk by Anthony Evans back in 2013:
The original Kickstarter video was very inspiring and made synthetic biology look so easy. The only issue is that 3 and a half years later there is still no glowing plant. The founding team is still working on the plant, but according to the updates on the original Kickstarter campaign page the prospects are not very reassuring. Anthony Evans himself stated in the comments section that the delivery of the plant is not anymore guaranteed.
But what went wrong? First and foremost as Anthony puts it "It was a poor choice of product. It’s on the edge of what’s possible". Indeed bio-luminescence doesn't exist in plants in nature for the simple reason that it doesn't offer any evolutionary advantages. On the contrary it does cost energy, which would be better spent for growth. As a result the team had to insert a rather large sequence of 6 genes forming an entirely new metabolic pathway. Getting a plant to absorb and not suppress a gene sequence that big proved to be the biggest challenge, as Anthony Evans described in details in the project updates.
Nevertheless the project has been a success from several perspectives. It has been highly educational with very detailed updates by the founders on each step of the process. They managed to design the DNA sequence, get it printed, shipped and fused on longer DNA strands using rent-a-lab services and without touching a petri dish. In a way the did succeed in proving that synthetic biology is possible outside of the well equipped labs of universities or bio-tech giants.The project team also expanded beyond the unfortunate glowing plant to other products like fragrant moss, which is supposingly much closer to market.