The Glowing plant: A recreational GMO

Through the Web site Kickstarter, three young entrepreneurs have raised about half a million dollars for a project that aims to genetically modify a plant so that it glows in the dark. Although Kickstarter has since banned the offering of similarly engineered organisms as rewards to backers, the creators of the glowing plant intend to distribute the seeds of their creation to benefactors. But first, a few hurdles:

a glowing source

Some bacteria glow in the dark. Such bioluminescence is an expression of six genes from a section of the bacterium's DNA known as the LUX operon, which the engineers can isolate and sequence.

The LUX operon. Illustration by Patterson Clark

rejiggering a gene

The engineers tack on promoter and terminator genes, which would tell the plant when to start and stop reading the genes. The sequence is sent to a manufacturer, which mass-produces the genes.

The LUX operon with promoter and terminator genes. Illustration by Patterson Clark

targeting plant tissue

Nanoparticles of gold and tungsten are coated with the manufactured genes and, using compressed air, are shot into cultured cells from mouse-ear cress, a small mustard plant native to Europe. If not destroyed by the bioballistics, some of the cells absorbing the pellets might integrate the engineered sequence into the cell's genome.

Bioballistics using nanoparticles coated with genes. Illustration by Patterson Clark

propagating a glowing plant

Whole plants are grown from the tissue culture. A glowing plant reaching maturity would be able to transfer its bioluminescence to future generations through the DNA found in its chloroplasts, photosynthetic cell organelles passed to offspring. Seeds from those plants would be collected and propagated.

A genetically engineered glowing plant. Illustration by Patterson Clark

environmental safety

Scientists are exploring the possibility of adding a biocontainment feature to the glowing plant to address environmental concerns. For instance, they could make the plant deficient in biotin (Vitamin B7) so that owners of the plant would have to feed the plant biotin on a regular basis. If the plant were to escape into the wild, it would likely not survive.

Promoter

The LUX operon

Terminator

LUX

SOURCE: Source: Kyle Taylor, glowingplant.com.

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