Why are the no bioluminescent plants?

Why are the no bioluminescent plants?

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There are bioluminescent creatures and some fungi too. As far as I can see there are no bioluminescent plants. Why is this?

I imagine it would make a good attraction for night pollinators, or even for carnivorous plants so there must be some reason why this hasn't evolved somewhere on our planet. My guess would be that it takes too much energy for the chemical reaction involved and it's not worth the pay out but that's just a guess.

Overall, bioluminescence has arisen over forty times in evolutionary history.[25]

There are bioluminescent funghi and bacteria.

Phosphorus is the 2nd most important nutrient for plants, so perhaps it's too expensive to use for bioluminescence, most plants don't live in phosphorus rich environments.

Bioluminescence also uses quite a lot of nitrogen, and most plants can't fix nitrogen.

there are 71 species of glowing funghi, perhaps to distribute spores, so plants with spores could have had the same strategy.

If two species of plants used light for night time insects, it can confuse the insects if they are plant specific, light is more confusing than scents.

A tree can potentially produce a lot of light, and it would turn into a forest lamp-post attracting lots of insects. It could be ecologically hazardous. perhaps a carnivorous plant could benefit from it.

It seems like plants and algea easily could have evolved bioluminscence easily, if bacteria and protists have, and that it wasn't profitable to the plants.

A crowdfunded project to make some failed because it was too difficult to put 6 animal genes into the plant.

land animals use light as an indicator of fitness, and plants don't need to indicate their individual fitness to others, and most bioluminescent animals have the option to switch things on and off very effectively, which difficult for trees.

the same reason there is no bioluminescent mammals or birds, the benefits are too small to make up for the cost in calories, in plants it might even have a bigger cost because it might interfere with some parts of photosynthesis.

Whatever Happened to the Glowing Plant Kickstarter?

The project seized on one of the most romantic fantasies of synthetic biology.

The latest update came quietly on Tuesday night. “We’re sorry to say that we have reached a significant transition point,” wrote the Glowing Plant project’s creator, Antony Evans. This “transition point” was more of an endpoint: The project had run out of money. The quest to genetically engineer a glow-in-the-dark plant was no more.

Four years ago, the Glowing Plant project raised nearly half a million dollars on Kickstarter, easily blowing past its initial ask of $65,000. Of course it did. The vision it presented was such potent fantasy. “What if,” Evans asked over swelling music in the pitch video, “we use trees to light our streets instead of street lamps?” What if you could get lighting without electricity? What if the natural world glowed like in Avatar?

This romantic vision so perfectly encapsulated the promises of synthetic biology, a field that treats the natural world as another system to be designed and engineered. In this case, synthetic biology became a possible solution to one of the world’s most pressing energy problems: electricity generation. Plus, it sounded really damn cool.

The Kickstarter campaign only promised a small, potted glowing plant to it backers, and I doubt many backers actually harbored illusions about trees lighting up the night sky soon. But backing the project was a small way to buy into a much grander vision.

“Lots of biotech startups fail. I think this one is maybe more disappointing for myself and others for what it seems to have represented,” says Todd Kuiken, a research scholar at North Carolina State University’s Genetic Engineering & Society Center, who also chipped into the project’s Kickstarter campaign. The glowing plants were one of the first synthetic biology projects to really capture the public’s imagination.

At a time when “genetically modified organism,” or GMO, is such a poisoned phrase, the project’s crowdfunding success seemed to suggest that a pervasive if vague distrust of genetic modification might be countered by the sense of wonder for a glowing plant. (As the Kickstarter campaign grew, though, environmental groups raised questions and the crowdfunding site later banned giving away genetically modified organisms.)

The team also encountered the hard realities of engineering even a small plant that glows. “We did not anticipate some of the unknown technical challenges that we would get into,” Evans told me. (Plenty of scientists at the time were skeptical of the project’s timeline, though.) Evans is an MBA with a background in mobile apps, though his two original cofounders, who have both since left the project, had backgrounds in synthetic biology.

To get the plant to glow well, the research team had to insert six genes. But they never could get all six in at once. At best, some plants glowed very dimly. (The photo above of the glowing plant is a long exposure, making it appear much brighter than it actually is.) Evans says that he realizes now trying to insert six genes into a complex organism like a plant—rather than single-celled bacteria or yeast—was premature.

That’s why TAXA, the company that Evans set up to work on glowing plants, eventually pivoted to creating genetically modified moss that smells like patchouli to subsidize continuing glowing-plant research. Moss is a simpler organism. They got the scented moss growing, but the last bunch was contaminated and could not be shipped to customers. Without the moss, there was no way to keep funding the company. That’s when Evans realized that glowing plants weren’t happening.

“I’m really afraid of disappointing that 16-year-old who saw this and imagined a bright wonderful future, of jading and disappointing people,” he says. Despite a few angry backers asking for a refund, most of the comments under the Kickstarter update so far have been supportive. The project had been providing regular, detailed updates on the difficulty of engineering the plants. The latest update was its 67th.

In the four years since Glowing Plant began, synthetic biology has caught the eye of investors. “Glowing Plant was iconic,” says Ryan Bethencourt, the program director at IndieBio, an accelerator for biology startups. “That was one the things that made me realize this was the time to start building up synthetic biology.” In the meantime, the technology of sequencing and synthesizing DNA has only gotten cheaper.

Recently, synthetic biology startups like Bolt Threads and Ginkgo Bioworks have raised tens of millions of dollars. Synthetic biology has the real potential to disrupt the vast networks of how we get things—clothes, food, energy—but these two companies also tap into a romantic vision about what nature is and could be. Bolt Threads trades in the allure of spider silk. It recently unveiled an $314 tie made of spider silk, produced in vats and spun by machine. Ginkgo Bioworks makes flavors and fragrances it has flirted with the idea of making a perfume from resurrected Ice Age flowers.

Both companies also work with genetically engineered yeast—the simple, single-celled organisms that Glowing Plant overstepped.

7 Ways Bioluminescence Has Revolutionized Medical Research

Bioluminescence is nature’s chemical flashlight—lighting the dark inner reaches of remote caves, deep waters, and even moonless night skies with its eerily beautiful greenish glow. As far back as 500 BCE ancient sailors wrote about luminous and sparkling night seas. The protein that causes this natural light is called luciferin, which can be found in special bacteria, marine creatures and planktons, and even some algae and mushrooms. The light is the result of a chemical reaction between its enzyme form, luciferase, and some form of added energy (oxygen, sugar, etc.).

In 2008 three scientists won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (including Martin Chalfie, below) for developing green fluorescent protein (GFP) and genetically modifying it so that animals could be engineered to produce their own. Since then, it has become widely used in medical and scientific research. Here are seven ways scientists are using the glowing genes of jellyfish and fireflies in medical research.


You may harbor a healthy fear of the sting of an ocean jelly, but they’ve probably done more good for your health than harm. The glowing protein extracted from the crystal jelly (Aqueorea victoria, seen above), has become an indispensable tool in cellular research and medicine.


In 1994, neurobiologist Martin Chalfie inserted the gene into the cells of E. coli bacteria and the roundworm C. elegans. Under UV light, the cells emitted a green glow. The gene for GFP has since been inserted into the genetic code of many different species, which can then be made to make their own GFP. GFP and its cousin proteins have been used to induce glowing in bacteria, protozoa, plants, nematodes, birds, mammals, and fish, among others.


Japanese scientists have been inserting bioluminescent genes into mammals in the hopes of creating animal models of neurological diseases, such as Parkinson’s, for which rodent models aren’t sufficient.

Researchers injected viruses carrying the gene for GFP into 91 marmoset monkey embryos. Of the 80 transgenic embryos transplanted into surrogate mothers, five bioluminescent babies were born in the first round and another three thereafter, in 2009.


Researchers at the Mayo Clinic and Yamaguchi University in Japan successfully injected a lentivirus genetically engineered with GFP genes directly into unfertilized cat eggs in an attempt to track the spread of FIV, which moves in a similar vector to human HIV.


is considered a “brighter” form of bioluminescence, and it glows more yellow-green than its marine counterparts (which are more blue-green). It’s often used in bioluminescent imaging (BLI), which allows neurologists to see individual neurons, and in bioluminescence resonance energy transfer (BRET), to monitor protein-protein interactions in plants and mammalian cells.


In the mid '80s, emboldened by the advances in bioluminescent technology, plant biologists created a glowing tobacco plant with firefly bioluminescence for research purposes. None of this tobacco was ever consumed by people, but it was the beginning of a new way to study plant cell biology. Plant biologists are still using the technology today to study everything from root systems to plants’ circadian systems.


In 2011, scientists from Connecticut College used firefly luciferase as an imaging agent to monitor patients treated with heparin, the blood thinner that is given to prevent or treat blood clots. The scientists mixed the firefly luciferase with a unique dye that coaxes the protein to emit near-infrared light. This new blended bioluminescent agent was able to help them detect tiny amounts of a blood protein, called factor Xa, and better monitor the effectiveness of heparin treatment.


A new study in the journal Cell Host & Microbe attempted to track the transmission of HIV between heterosexual males and females. Using a virus similar to HIV called SIV (simian immunodeficiency virus) that affects primates, researchers genetically inserted the luciferase gene into the SIV cells and introduced that into the vaginas of uninfected rhesus macaques. The newly infected cells glowed, revealing that SIV does not enter by the cervix, as previously thought. This result may lead to research revealing a similar pathway in human HIV.


A recent study in Nature used bioluminescent imaging with firefly luciferase on pregnant mice to better understand the transport functions of the blood-placenta barrier (BPB), and how well this protects the fetus from substances ingested by the mother. Their research may also help us to understand the same function of the blood-brain barrier, which prevents molecules from easily entering or exiting the brain’s vascular system. Researchers are hopeful this can translate to human studies in the near future.

Researchers seek to explain why there are so few land dwelling bioluminescent species

Image: Naturwissenschaften, DOI: 10.1007/s00114-012-0956-7

(—Visitors to the world's oceans are likely to find a wide variety of bioluminescent creatures, especially as they descend to depths where sunlight can't reach. The ability to glow has evolved in underwater organisms for a variety of reasons, from attracting prey to helping find a mate. On land however, things are very different. Other than 13 known species of insects, which of course include the firefly, very few other creatures have evolved the ability to glow and now, new research suggests that virtually all of them evolved much more recently than did marine dwellers. Peter Vršanský and colleagues from the Slovak Academy of Sciences have found after studying the collective history of all known bioluminescent species that land dwellers apparently evolved from a single source some sixty five million years ago, whereas their marine counterparts first came about closer to four hundred million years ago. Their paper describing their findings has been published in the journal Naturwissenschaften.

The work by Vršanský el al comes on the heels of news that a rare species of cockroach, Lucihormetica luckae, specimens of which were found on the slope of a volcano before its subsequent eruption, appear to glow to mimic the click beetle which lives in the same general area. Click beetles glow, researchers believe, to warn predators of its toxic nature, thus preserving itself. The cockroach that mimics it on the other hand is not toxic, but it's markings are so similar that it appears it evolved it's luminescent abilities for the express purpose of fooling predators into thinking it was a click beetle and thus toxic.

Vršanský and colleagues believe it's possible that land dwelling bioluminescent species came to exist only after nocturnal life on land diversified to the point where such an ability would be useful. They also theorize that it's possible that it took longer for bioluminescence to evolve in land creatures because of the toxic nature of the chemicals involved in growing glowing organs. Marine animals live in a colder and in some sense cleaner environment, it's easy to wash away residue. Land species on the other hand would have had to evolve a way dispose of the toxins in a way that didn't harm its carrier.

The team also notes that because land dwelling bioluminescent species are so rare, it's likely they might be at risk of disappearing altogether. L. luckae might be gone already, as no specimens have been found since the volcano on which it lived, erupted. And the most evident example of them all, the firefly has been found to be dwindling in numbers over the past decade as well.

Bioluminescence is a common feature of the communication and defence of marine organisms, but this phenomenon is highly restricted in the terrestrial biota. Here, we present a geographical distribution of only the third order of luminescent insects—luminescent cockroaches, with all 13 known and/or herein reported new living species (based on deposited specimens). We show that, for the first time, photo-characteristics of three examined species are nearly identical with those of toxic luminescent click beetles, which they mimic. These observations are the evidence for the mimicry by light—a new type of defensive, Batesian and interordinal mimicry. Our analysis surprisingly reveals an evolutionary novelty of all living luminescent insects, while in the sea (and possibly in the soil) luminescence is present also phylogenetically in very primitive organisms.

How to Make a Plant Glow

"Our vision is that people will be hacking together biological applications in the same way they are making mobile applications today," says Antony Evans, the CEO of a San Francisco company called Glowing Plant. (That is the actual name of the company: Glowing Plant.) The glowing Arabidopsis, a dainty flowering plant that emits a firefly-like light, is only a part of the company's plans to transform horticulture through genetic manipulation. You could make plants that smell especially nice, or filter toxic chemicals from the air. "Plants already do this, but maybe we can make them better at it," Evans says. A look at how he and his team made the Arabidopsis glow.

STEP 1: Design DNA Sequences Glowing Plant uses software called Genome Compiler to design DNA sequences based on a glowing gene (lux operon), found in a bioluminescent marine bacterium. The sequence also includes promoters, specific regions of DNA from the plant that force it to accept, then "express," the foreign gene&mdashin other words, to show its new luminescence.

STEP 2: Print DNA The team uploads the DNA sequence online and sends it to Cambrian Genomics, which laser-prints millions of strings of individual pieces of synthetic DNA. The result is white powder, which Cambrian Genomics ships in vials to Glowing Plant, via FedEx.

STEP 3: Test and Insert DNA The team uses Agro bacterium&mdasha special bacteria that can inject DNA into plants&mdashto insert new DNA into a plant leaf. They test various combinations, and when they find one they're happy with&mdashthe brighter the better&mdashit's off to the gene gun.

STEP 4: The Gene Gun The gene gun shoots slivers of DNA-coated nanoproduct (made of tungsten or gold) into living plant stem cells. They revive the plant from the genetically modified stem cells, and harvest the seeds from there. Piece of cake.

STEP 5: Plant the Seed Your standard plant- reproduction process.

MAKE IT YOURSELF: Glowing Plant is releasing a kit this fall that lets you make several plant species, such as tobacco and petunia, glow. It uses a floral dip process: You dip seeds into a solution containing the transformed Agrobacterium, allowing the custom DNA to enter the cell nucleus of the seeds. Then just plant, and wait. (Kits, $300 plant seeds, $40 pro-grown plant, $100)

Inside the Glowing-Plant Startup That Just Gave up Its Quest

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Down in a basement along bustling Third Street in San Francisco’s SoMa startup district, Antony Evans unzipped a black tent. It’s the same kind of tent that marijuana growers use, he told me. But it was heavy, earthy patchouli, not skunk, that hit me when I stepped inside the brightly lit cube. Petri dishes piled high on a table contain clusters of green moss.

Evans had invited me to stop by his lab in late January. He was excited to share his latest news. After four years of false starts and failed plants, his startup Taxa Biotechnologies was now two months away from finally shipping its first product, a patchouli-scented moss. By the end of March, up to 1,000 units of the perfumed moss would be ready for purchase as a novelty in small terrariums, costing buyers roughly $50 to $80 a pop.

Except that as Evans announced in a blog post last night, the moss turned out to be contaminated. It was unsafe to ship, and its replacement wouldn’t be ready until July, he wrote. But he had even bigger news to share. When he first launched his project as a Kickstarter campaign in 2013, his goal was to sell plants that glowed in the dark. The moss endeavor was just a more achievable goal that would help Taxa make ends meet and fund research on the light-emitting plants. Now, however, the glowing plant project is officially dead.

“We’re sorry to say that we have reached a significant transition point,” he wrote in yesterday’s post. Because he wasn’t able to ship the patchouli moss on time, Taxa “had to reduce the size of the team to ensure we have enough financial runway to ship the moss, and this has meant stopping the work we were doing on higher plants to focus on the moss.”

The glowing plant project is not just any old failed Kickstarter campaign. After going live on the crowdfunding site, Evans’ project quickly became the poster child of the unwarranted hype and hysteria around DNA engineering. Evans and his team hadn’t shown they could produce even a single glowing plant, and yet they managed to rake in $484,000 in orders, far exceeding their $65,000 goal. The campaign also triggered a firestorm of criticism. People worried that biohackers like Evans were opening up a Pandora’s box of genetic freaks, potentially corrupting the world for good. They fretted that the plants might spread to the outside world and become an invasive species.

Rattled by the onslaught of negative publicity, Kickstarter banned any future synthetic biology projects. Evans was surprised by the reaction, but undeterred. What better way to change the public’s mind than to let it see a glowing plant firsthand?

As he tinkered with his plants in the years that followed, the controversy over synthetic biology continued to mount. Anti**-**GMO activists grew more vocal. With the emergence of the powerful genome editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, tools for DIY bioengineering seemed to be at the fingertips of any capable amateur. Finally, genomes could be rearranged and rewritten just like software. The biological world was yielding itself to hackers.

But as 2014, 2015, and 2016 ticked by, Evans faced a different reality. He could barely get his plants to glow at all. Taxa Biotechnologies was running out of money. A cofounder quit. What had seemed scientifically straightforward had turned into a lonely, multi-year slog.

So he changed tack, setting aside the glowing plants and throwing his energies behind scented moss instead. By mid-2016, the company had grown patchouli moss that Evans considered ready for consumers. At last he could start planning for a product launch, and he picked the week of March 27, 2017. Evans had summoned me to his lab to help him tell his redemption story. He’d show the world just how amazing bioengineering could be.

Except…he didn’t. Instead, he ended up killing off the four-year-old dream that he’d shared and nurtured with his thousands of supporters.

I met Evans at Taxa’s home base, a chaotic mix of office and lab in a coworking space that the company shares with a few other startups. Every surface was covered with books and scientific equipment. It was clear he’d been there awhile. He was stoic but direct with his answers to my questions as he led me down flights of stairs to the basement grow tent.

Evans got the idea for his glowing plant project while searching for a way to cut his teeth in the field of synthetic biology. He had no prior biology experience, but plenty of vision. In 2011 he’d moved to Silicon Valley and attended the graduate studies program at Singularity University, a tech think tank at NASA Research Park, about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco. Singularity University preaches the potential of exponential technologies: areas where performance is increasing rapidly alongside steep drops in price. Evans learned aboutthe concept of a circular economy—a society that meets all its needs from sustainable sources. He became hooked on the idea of the sun as the foundation of a circular economy, by virtue of the physical matter it allows you to grow.

“As soon as you recognize the only truly sustainable technology is biology, it’s obvious that synthetic biology, which is the technology that allows us to harness biology for our own good, is a thing we need to embrace,” Evans says.

At a Singularity alumni event, he met biochemist and entrepreneur Omri Amirav-Drory, who had founded a synthetic-biology software company called Genome Compiler. Amirav-Drory suggested setting up a Kickstarter to fund a glowing plant. As early as 1986, scientists at the University of California-San Diego had demonstrated a plant that emitted light — a tobacco plant with a firefly gene inserted. If the technology was already three decades old, surely there was a way to mass-produce and commercialize light-emitting plants. Evans’ thoughts raced ahead, and he imagined replacing electricity with hacked plants. Roads could be lit with glowing trees instead of street lamps. Small plants that could act as indoor night lights felt like a real first step.

Evans started hanging out at the biohacking space Biocurious just east of NASA Research Park, where he met and pitched the idea to Kyle Taylor, a Stanford biology graduate student. Together they started tinkering with a plant from the mustard family known as Arabidopsis.

Emboldened by their first attempts to design DNA they believed would make a plant glow, they turned to Kickstarter. For $40 backers would receive glowing plant seeds the very next year. To the team’s surprise, the crowdfunding campaign got 8,433 orders and raised almost half a million dollars. The media covered it heavily. “Replace your lights with these genetically engineered glow-plants” a 2013 Popular Science headline read.

“Right after the Kickstarter there was a lot of optimism and excitement,” Evans says. “It took many months for the reality of how hard this was going to be to settle in.”

They were trying to insert six genes found in naturally bioluminescent ocean bacteria into an Arabidopsis plant’s genome. All cells, including Arabidopsis’s, naturally contain molecules that, when combined with those six genes, kick off a chemical reaction that emits light.

Once they had created the gene sequence in a software program, they ordered it from a supplier online. Evans likened it to ordering a custom T-shirt: You upload the gene sequence as a text file and pay for the order with your credit card.

Not mushroom for glowing

The light-emitting plants were developed by inserting bioluminescent DNA from a mushroom into a tobacco plant. Tobacco plants were used because of their simple genetics and rapid growth, although other plants could be utilized in the future. Feasibility has already been shown with plants including periwinkle, petunia, and rose. Plants that contain the mushroom DNA glow continuously throughout their lifespan (not just at night), all the way from seedling through to mature plant.

The project was carried out by researchers at Moscow biotech company Planta, working with the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences, MRC London Institute of Medical Sciences, and the Institute of Science and Technology Austria, and others. Light Bio is the company spun out to bring these luminescent plants to market in ornamental house plants, in partnership with Planta.

“Bioluminescence is one of the most fascinating and diverse phenomena found in nature,” Wood explained. “Many scientists worldwide are working to better understand the underlying foundations for these living lights. They also recognize that these have many practical and aesthetic applications.”

The work was led by Dr. Ilia Yampolsky, who discovered the biochemical basis for bioluminescence in mushrooms. The unique insight was not just discovering the natural bioluminescence found in some mushrooms, but also that it was unexpectedly compatible with the basic metabolism common to all plants. Through collaboration, the researchers formulated their hypothesis that glowing plants may be a real feasible possibility.

This is not the first time that researchers have explored bioluminescence in plants. In 1985, Light Bio’s founder Wood was harnessing the underlying chemistry and molecular biology responsible for the firefly’s glow to create glowing plants (again, of the tobacco variety) by inserting the relevant DNA. Since then, researchers have continued to explore the concept every few years. In 2017, for instance, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers were able to get an otherwise ordinary watercress plant to emit a dim light for a period of 3.5 hours by embedding specialized nanoparticles into its leaves.

ELI5: we already know how photosynthesis is done so why cant we creat “artificial plants” that take CO2 and gives O2 and energy in exchange?


Artificial photosynthesis actually is a deeply studied field of research, where you use sunlight to drive a reaction that releases oxygen from various solutions. The problem is, the components needed in the reaction are inefficient, degrade/deplete quickly, or are expensive to make/maintain.

4 2 2 5

I work within a related scientific field. There are two main lines of research that have been worked on for decades.

Replicating photosynthesis artificially without plants. It kind of works, but is far from being economically viable. Plants are still much better at photosynthesis than chemists are. Solar cells is a more viable alternative within the foreseeable future.

Improving plants so they become more efficient at photosynthesis. This has been attempted mainly through improving the enzyme RuBisCO, which is responsible for CO2 uptake in plants. RuBisCo is an unusually slow enzyme, it only takes up a handfull of CO2 molecules per second. A faster RuBisCO has been created by scientists, but it did not end up improving plant growth in practice.
Edit: I'm not super up to date with this, apparently some of the problems have now been worked out and there is a faster growing plant out there. (

So, in conclusion, your idea was good but it is hard to get to work in a practical and especially economically viable way.

Kickstarter must not fund biohackers' glow-in-the-dark plants

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 one, right?

At first glance, it's hard not to be seduced by a new crowd-funded 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 of it.

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 regulatory vacuum.

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 genetic pollution.

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 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 damage control.

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 movies.

ELI5: we already know how photosynthesis is done so why cant we creat “artificial plants” that take CO2 and gives O2 and energy in exchange?


Artificial photosynthesis actually is a deeply studied field of research, where you use sunlight to drive a reaction that releases oxygen from various solutions. The problem is, the components needed in the reaction are inefficient, degrade/deplete quickly, or are expensive to make/maintain.

4 2 2 5

I work within a related scientific field. There are two main lines of research that have been worked on for decades.

Replicating photosynthesis artificially without plants. It kind of works, but is far from being economically viable. Plants are still much better at photosynthesis than chemists are. Solar cells is a more viable alternative within the foreseeable future.

Improving plants so they become more efficient at photosynthesis. This has been attempted mainly through improving the enzyme RuBisCO, which is responsible for CO2 uptake in plants. RuBisCo is an unusually slow enzyme, it only takes up a handfull of CO2 molecules per second. A faster RuBisCO has been created by scientists, but it did not end up improving plant growth in practice.
Edit: I'm not super up to date with this, apparently some of the problems have now been worked out and there is a faster growing plant out there. (

So, in conclusion, your idea was good but it is hard to get to work in a practical and especially economically viable way.

The role of bioluminescence in metabolism

The functional role of bioluminescence in lower organisms such as bacteria, dinoflagellates, and fungi is difficult to discern. Partly because the glow of luminous bacteria is extinguished when oxygen is removed, it has been suggested that the bioluminescent reaction was originally used to remove oxygen toxic to primitive types of bacteria that developed when oxygen was absent or very rare in Earth’s atmosphere. The metabolic reaction that combines the oxygen with a reducing substance ( luciferin) liberates sufficient energy to excite a molecule in the organism to emit visible radiation. Most of those luminous primitive organisms subsequently developed systems of using oxygen, but they have retained the luminescent capability as parts of related metabolic pathways or for some survival value that luminescence may confer on the organism.