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Check out the Kickstopper campaign and watch the video
Kickstarter must not fund biohackers' glow-in-the-dark plants
By Martin Lukacs
This article was originally published by The Guardian on June 6, 2013.
*Crowdfunded US biohackers are set to make world's first deliberate
environmental release of a 'synthetic biology' organism
Who wouldn't want a flower that can glow in the dark? And what if it were
pitched as the coming wave of a sustainable future, in which luminous plants and
trees supplant light bulbs and street-lamps? You might even be tempted to buy
At first glance, it's hard not to be seduced by a new crowd-funded
Kickstarter.com project to engineer and circulate glow-in-the-dark plants.
Especially when the US company behind it invokes the possibility of turning your
living room into the glowing Pandora landscape of the Avatar movie.
Except this project is anything but a benign science trick. These plants are
being re-engineered using a highly controversial new technique by a biotech
company that could side-step the possibility of regulation – and build public
acceptance of a wider corporate-backed quest to manipulate nature and profit off
If you think twice before buying GM foods, welcome to the risky world of
synthetic biology. Instead of shifting existing genes from one species to
another, this extreme form of genetic engineering allows practitioners to write
entirely new genetic codes on computers and then insert them into living
organisms – or to create new life-forms from nothing but a few bottles of
chemicals. It's a field quickly moving from lab to commercial production. As of
this moment it hasn't yet stepped into the great outdoors – but this Kickstarter
project may be about to break that barrier.
Unless they're stopped, Kickstarter will hand over hundreds of thousands of
dollars on Friday to Genome Compiler Corporation, a private biotech company that
promises to send bioengineered plants and seeds to most of their US backers.
That means more than 600,000 freak bioengineered seeds will be let loose across
thousands of random locations in the USA – unregulated and uncontrolled.
In other words, this would be the first deliberate environmental release of an
avowedly "synthetic biology" organism in the world.
Though this is the first environmental release, synthetic biology is an
exploding and increasingly well-funded field. Corporations like Monsanto, BP,
Shell, and Dow have been pouring billions into new technologies. But it is
practically untouched by regulation. These corporations – hardly to be trusted
to ensure health and environmental concerns take precedence over their profits –
have been tacitly given the go-ahead by the Obama administration to proceed in a
Though it has mostly evaded public attention, there is a big battle brewing over
synthetic biology. The notion of releasing these extreme organisms flies in the
face of a growing consensus among civil society and international experts alike.
116 organizations have called for a moratorium on any release of synthetic
organisms. The UN convention on Biological Diversity has urged countries to
exercise precaution in any release of synthetic organisms to the environment.
Even the insurance industry is worried.
Making a glow-in-the-dark plant in the lab is not in itself something to cry
foul about – so long as it's properly contained. What is causing thousands of
concerned citizens to cry "no to glow" is that these biohackers plan to release
their manipulated seeds all over America.
Little is known about the impacts of synthetic biology, or even how to assess
its biosafety impacts. But what we do know is nature is complex and reacts in
unexpected ways to fundamental interventions. From fossil fuels and dams to GM
crops, we discover disastrous consequences only when it's too late. That's why
almost every credible body that's evaluated the still immature field of
synthetic biology has responded by urging grave caution.
But these biohackers have responded contemptuously, consciously designing their
plant to evade regulations and avoid oversights and monitoring. "We are very
cognizant of the precedent we are setting," says Antony Evans, the manager of
the project. It's a strategy the biotech industry has used before to create a
beachhead – establishing products on the ground and in the wild, before the
international bodies can catch up and regulate them.
Kickstarter – who not incidentally stand to profit to the tune of about $22,000
from the project – is about to allow themselves to be hijacked by these
biohackers. Many others will no doubt follow in their footsteps, now that
Kickstarter has shown it will provide a profitable and regulation-free avenue to
But it can still be stopped. Kickstarter refuses to fund guns, drugs, and porn –
and even, bizarrely, the sale of sunglasses. Their ethical guidelines need an
update to include bioengineered seeds as well. An Avaaz.org petition with over
8000 signatures is circulating demanding Kickstarter withhold the money until
there is a serious public debate. The environmental watchdog ETC Group has even
set up The KickStopper, a counter-project looking for funding.
A surge of popular opposition could ensure that Kickstarter puts a hold on this
project or that the biohackers think twice. In the face of increasing media
scrutiny, they have reportedly offered to hold a public dialogue before
releasing their seeds – though without any details it comes across as shallow
Ultimately it's not just about gimmicky glowing plants. The public dialogue that
is needed is about the brave new world of synthetic biology. For now, we must
demand a moratorium on the release and commercial use of synthetic organisms –
at least until proper regulations and safeguards have been established. Its
risks are too great, the unanswered questions too many. Meanwhile keep these
engineered plants in the laboratory – and leave their sci-fi effects to the
The GE News Service is aggregated and distributed by EFA Board Member Thomas Wittman. Thomas created this service in 1991 to provide the latest news about genetically engineered foods and the movement advocating for labeling and public awareness. To contact Thomas, email email@example.com.
The Ecological Farming Association nurtures healthy, just food systems and communities
by bringing people together for education, alliance building, and celebration.
To learn more, visit www.eco-farm.org.
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