Synthetic biology and genetically modified organisms are highly disputed concepts in modern science. There are concerns that GMOs pose risks to humans or may become invasive species. But such risks are case-specific, says Christina Holmes at Dalhousie University in Canada who studies implications of biotechnology and plant breeding innovations on humanity, as well as tensions they may cause.
“Bluntly put, not all GMOs are equal,” Holmes told Fox News. “It depends on what plant you’re using, genes you’re using, and what you’re using it for.” The risks are higher when plants in question are intended for human consumption, but Arabidopsis is just a weed. In terms of invasive species danger, risks also plant-specific. “This depends partly on how easy it is for the plant involved to spread its pollen and therefore its genes to other plants,” Holmes said.
For Arabidopsis, that would be a hard thing to do, said Kyle Taylor, the molecular and plant biologist at Glowing Plant. Arabidopsis is primarily a self-pollinating herb. “Ask any Arabidopsis biologist how hard it is to get them cross-pollinated and they will tell you that it’s a non-trivial thing to do,” Tylor told Fox News. He adds that it will be harder for the hybrid to survive because light production takes extra energy, which weakens the plant. The hybrid may even confuse its own light with sunlight, Tylor said, which may negatively affect its metabolism. “If you put a regular Arabidopsis next to a glowing one,” Tylor said, “the glowing one looks less happy.” Holmes says one may never know in advance how the new specie would behave, but the luminous modification “won’t give it any better weed power” -- compared to, let say, canola that’s genetically modified to resist herbicide.
Holmes points out that GMO studies have value, and the aura of negativity around it can impede research. “We’re seeing stories of scientists being intimidated or losing their jobs when they do research that could provide environmental of health critiques of genetic modifications,” Holmes told Fox News.
That’s exactly what Glowing Plant set off to do, said Evans—to make the concept of synthetic biology exciting and relatable to people. “The reason people have such mistrust in biotechnology, is that they don’t understand it,” Evans told Fox News. “We believe that we can change the resistance to biotechnology by creating something tangible, something people can understand.”
“I think it’s an interesting approach,” Holmes said.
So will we live to see Pandora’s-forest-like trees that will replace street lamps, cutting down on electricity use and CO2 emissions? “It’s gonna take a lot of work to get to that level,” Tylor says. “It’s biology, so things can pop up that we don’t fully understand.” But he adds, “We have some ideas how to get there.”
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