Fans of Avatar’s Pandora forests rejoice: glow-in-the-dark plants are coming to your house, says Anthony Evans, the CEO of a synthetic biology startup that created the bioluminescent flora. Glowing trees will take awhile to make, but you can already preorder seeds of a glow-in-the-dark Arabidopsis, a little flowering plant of a mustard family. According to the original Kickstarter campaign last year,Glowingplant.com would start shipping the luminous Arabidopsis seeds to customers this April, but postponed the release date till fall.
Evans said that the delay is because the company raised more money than expected and could afford more work on tweaking their product to high shine. “We asked our backers a few months ago whether they wanted us to ship on time or to use the rest of the funds to improve the luminosity,” Evans told Fox News. “The overwhelming advice was to improve.”
To create a bioluminescent plant, the biohackers synthetically cross-bred Arabidopsis and marine bioluminescent bacteria Vibrio fischeri. Directly inserting V. fischeri’s DNA into the plant wouldn’t work -- the genes required various modifications to operate properly in the plant. So the team used the synthetic approach. First, they assembled the genes virtually using a software called genetic compiler, which lets scientists assemble DNA for new life forms on their computers. Then they sent the gene specs to DNA-assembling companies which built the actual physical DNA. The biohackers also used an open source software called Golden Braid to aggregate smaller DNA sequences into longer ones.
To import the assembled genes into Arabidopsis, the team used bacteria Agrobacterium tumefaciens. In nature, A. tumefaciens is a pathogen that inserts its own genes into plants’ cells, causing tumorous growth, but its neutralized version can deliver the synthesized DNA into the host plant without hurting it. The team inserted the genes into the leaves and assessed how well the plant adjusted, and how much light it produced. Because of extra funds, they’re experimenting with a gamut of slightly varied DNA sequences to achieve the best glow. “We plan to test about 1500 sequences,” Evans says, which is what caused the seed release delay.
When they settle on the best DNA sequence, they will create the commercial glow-in-the-dark Arabidopsis by using a tool called gene gun for DNA import -- because US Department of Agriculture considers agrobacteria a pest which is not allowed on products intended for use outside research labs. The gene gun will bombard the plant with tiny nanoparticles that deliver the DNA inside.
When this “gunned” Arabidopsis blooms, it will produce seeds that will retain the new genes. Its offspring would glow in the dark like a mini member of Pandora’s forest. Right now the team is testing the second-generation Arabidopsis’s glowing aptitude.
With the seeds available to everyone online, this would be the biggest release of a genetically engineered plant into the world. This concept doesn’t bode well with some environmentalists. When Glowing Plant first put their project on Kickstarter, an anti-synthetic biology group in Canada launched a “kickstopper” campaign to raise funds to prevent glowing plants from happening. The effort amassed a whopping $2274. The biohackers stopped a few bucks short of half a million dollars, beating their original goal by over seven times.