How to create a glowing plant

Natural lighting with no electricity or CO2 (or radioactive elements)
April 24, 2013

Now you can your own glowing plant at home, using synthetic biology and computer software.

All backers from the USA who back this Kickstarter project with $40 or more will receive seeds to grow a glowing plant at home.

From the Kickstarter page:

Once we have the plant, it is just a matter of breeding enough offspring to grow seeds for all backers. You can expect around 50–100 small seeds in the packet. This is a one-off project and these seeds will never be sold commercially, so this is your opportunity to get them.

For those outside the USA we are waiving additional international shipping charges to compensate for not being able to send you the seeds.

What is Synthetic Biology? 

All living organisms contain an instruction set that determines what they look like and what they do. These instructions are encoded in the organisms’s DNA — long and complex strings of molecules embedded in every living cell. This is an organism’s genetic code (or “genome”).

Humans have been altering the genetic code of plants and animals for millennia, by selectively breeding individuals with desirable features. As biotechnologists have learned more about how to read and manipulate this code, they have begun to take genetic information associated with useful features from one organism, and add it into another one. This is the basis of genetic engineering, and has allowed researchers to speed up the process of developing new breeds of plants and animals.

More recently we have learnt how to make new sequences of DNA from scratch. By combining these techniques with the principles of modern engineering, scientists can now use computers and laboratory chemicals to design organisms that do new things.

This is the essence of synthetic biology and it’s potential is tremendous — we can use it to produce cheaper, more efficient biofuels, to excrete the precursors of medical drugs or create new plants which naturally glow.

Why do we need your help?

We’ve already invested our own time and money into the project developing the DNA designs, finding partners to help execute and investigating the legal ramifications but don’t have the financial resources to print the DNA and complete the transformations ourselves.

By backing this project you can help create the world’s first naturally glowing plant, inspire others to become interested in synthetic biology and receive some awesome rewards in the process.

What will you use the funds for?

We are using Synthetic Biology techniques and Genome Compiler’s software to insert bioluminescence genes into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant and member of the mustard family, to make a plant that visibly glows in the dark (it is inedible).

Funds raised will be used to print the DNA sequences we have designed using Genome Compiler and to transform the plants by inserting these sequences into the plant and then growing the resultant plant in the lab.

Printing DNA costs a minimum of 25 cents per base pair and our sequences are about 10,000 base pairs long. We plan to print a number of sequences so that we can test the results of trying different promoters — this will allow us to optimize the result. We will be printing our DNA with Cambrian Genomics, who have developed a revolutionary laser printing system that massively reduces the cost of DNA synthesis.

Transforming the plant will initially be done using the Agrobacterium method.  Our printed DNA will be inserted into a special type of bacteria which can insert its DNA into the plant.  Seeds of a flowering plant are then dipped into a solution containing the transformed bacteria.  The bacteria then injects our DNA into the cell nucleus of the seeds which we can grow until they glow!  You can see this process in action in our video.

Once we have proven the designs work we will then insert the same gene sequence into the plant using a gene gun.  This is more complicated, as there’s a risk the gene sequence gets scrambled, but the result will be unregulated by the USDA and thus suitable for release.

Funds raised will also be used to support our work to develop an open policy framework for DIY Bio work involving recombinant DNA.  This framework will provide guidelines to help others  who are inspired by this project navigate the regulatory and social challenges inherent in community based synthetic biology.  The framework will include recommendations for what kinds of projects are safe for DIY Bio enthusiasts and recommendations for the processes which should be put in place (such as getting experts to review the plans).

Why now?

Recent advances in the field of synthetic biology, such as Genome Compiler’s software and Cambrian Genomics DNA printing hardware, have brought the cost and complexity of genetically engineering new organisms within reach of amateurs.

The costs continue to fall, and within a few years thousands of DIY Bio enthusiasts will be using Citizen Science to inspire their own creations. We want to create a signature project which inspires them and demonstrates to the world what’s already possible with a little creativity and imagination.

Is this legal?

Yes it is! There are three federal agencies which regulate Genetically Modified organisms in the US, each with a different remit for public safety:

  • USDA regulates plant and agriculture impact through APHIS and are the most relevant for our project. We’ve been in touch with them to understand and address their main concerns which are mainly related to the introduction of potential plant pests.  After more than 15 years working with genetically engineered crops they have established a set of guidelines for what needs additional testing, and what doesn’t.  So long as we meet all their requirements we can safely release the plant. One of their inputs was that we should use the gene-gun technique to transform our plants, instead of Agrobacterium.
  • EPA regulates new uses of pesticides – many GMO’s introduce pesticide or herbicide resistance to their plants (either as a selection agent or as an intended outcome).  We have elected not to do this, as we can use the glowing effect as a marker, so will not need to go through their testing procedures.
  • FDA regulates food and feedstock implications and requires extensive testing to make sure the product is safe if this is the case.  Because our plant is strictly ornamental and not for consumption by animals or humans we do not have to go through this testing.

We will continue to liaise with the federal agencies, especially APHIS, as the project develops to ensure we are compliant with the frameworks they have put in place to protect the public.

Regrettably the European Union has tighter restrictions in place so we can’t send seeds there as a reward.

Is this safe?

The head of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, George Church, who works extensively on engineering biosafety described our project as ‘as safe as it gets’.  We are introducing non-pathogenic, non-toxic, well categorized genes to a model plant which is well understood by biologists and which will not survive very well in the environment.

In the lab we will comply with all NIH guidelines on recombinant DNA research.  Our work is graded at Biosafety Level 1, which is the lowest level of risk to the external environment.

What is Genome Compiler?

Genome Compiler is software, designed by Omri and his team, which allows a user to easily design genetic sequences and order them online.  The software includes a large database of genetic parts and a beautiful interface so you can easily combine them to create your desired results.

What is Cambrian Genomics?

At Cambrian Genomics Austen and his team make the first commercial hardware/systems for laser printing DNA. Presently, researchers in academia and industry order or clone >$1b/year of DNA. Cambrian plans to deliver high quality sequence verified DNA to buyers in this existing/growing worldwide market.

Who made your video?

The video was made by Rick Symonds, who is based on San Francisco.  You can see more of his work and contact him at

Where can I get more information?

Want to know more? Just give us a call +1-415-779-6333 or email antony at glowing plant dot com.