Monday, September 30, 2013

Replacing Street Lights With Glowing Trees

How many do-it-yourself bioengineering enthusiasts does it take to change a light bulb? Apparently 8,433. That’s how many individuals backed the Glowing Plant Project on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter earlier this year.

Spearheaded by two biologists and a former Bain & Company management consultant, the Glowing Plant Project has at least two goals. Long-term: creating trees that glow so powerfully through bioluminescence that they can function as street lights. Short-term: promoting grassroots innovation within the realm of synthetic biology. You no longer have to be Monsanto to hack Mother Nature.

Things sped up last year after former Bain consultant Antony Evans watched biologist Omri Amirav-Drory give a presentation on the possibilities of using living organisms to produce energy, fuel, plastics, and fertilizers. Evans was inspired by Amirav-Drory’s suggestion that armchair tinkerers, utilizing sophisticated but easy-to-use software and a “biological app store,” might one day assemble the genetic material for producing a “renewable, self-assembled, solar-powered, sustainable street-lamp”—in other words, a bioluminescent oak tree.

Glowing trees are “a very simple idea,” Evans told me in a phone interview. “People have seen it in Avatar.” With its paradigm-shifting sci-fi environmentalism and eye-catching visuals, turning plants into mood lighting is also the sort of project that seems genetically engineered for the highly viral domain of online fund raising. “We were thinking Kickstarter right from the beginning,” Evans said. “We knew we needed money and that seemed like a good way to raise it.”

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