When is the Amateur in Amateur Biology?
Over the last two years I have been conducting research into amateur biology in and around Silicon Valley. During that time, I have worked as a volunteer in a DIYBio lab and on a pair of laboratory projects, one an unlikely precursor to the Glowing Plant project and another which fell into the dust bin of scientific history. Which is to say, for every project that captures media attention and attracts funding like Glowing Plant, there is an equally interesting project struggling to generate interest and find collaborators. With that in mind, I want to discuss some of the tensions within DIYbio laid bare by success of the Glowing Plant Kickstarter campaign.
Glowing Plant needs little introduction, as it has been the subject of sustained media attention since the Kickstarter campaign it launched early this summer. To give a brief technical overview, Glowing Plant intends to take a luciferin system from the marine bacteria Vibrio Fischeri, which is found in squid, and place it into an Arabidopsis plant, thus causing the plant to bioluminesce at night. As outlined on their Kickstarter page, to effect this transformation they plan to use the software program Gene Compiler to design DNA sequences then have these sequences laser printed by Cambrian Genomics. Once printed, the DNA will be sent to the Glowing Plant laboratory via Fed-Ex (the standard way to move DNA around the world) and then transformed into the Arabidopsis plant via agrobacterium. This portion of the project is regulated by material transfer agreements governing the movement of recombinant DNA between laboratories and, due to the use of agrobacterium, no plants transformed in this manner can leave the Glowing Plant laboratory. However, once the plants transformed with agrobacterium are deemed to glow enough, a final transformation will be done with a gene gun. It is the use of the gene gun that allows Glowing Plant to ship a genetically modified organism (GMO) to consumers without regulatory oversight. Here Glowing Plants follows a strategy pioneered by Monsanto to market GM bluegrass.
To date, most commentary around the Glowing Plant project has concerned the ethics of biotechnology in general and the specific ethical implications of using biotechnology to make a consumer product in particular. But as the Monsanto case illustrates, this is not a strategy unique to Glowing Plant. Though, Glowing Plant is an easier legal target as they lack Monsanto’s war chest. But, I would like to emphasize a different aspect of the project: the role of hype in the crowdfunding campaign and the claims made by the organizers for the ease and effectiveness of this technology. Keep in mind that while much of the critical commentary on both pro and con has assumed this plant can be created (it is a greater technical challenge than making bluegrass), the plant is still hypothetical and its creation is not a certainty. Apart from the still hypothetical existence of the plant, there is speculation, due to the energetic requirements of light production, over whether the transformation can produce a light visible to the naked eye.
As I hinted at above, despite starting out in DIYBio lab, the Glowing Plant kickstarter campaign was sponsored and supported by a number of startup companies associated with Singularity University, and it maintains close ties to its startup ecosystem. The core team comprising the Glowing Plant project consists of one Stanford trained PhD conducting laboratory work, one Stanford post-doc, and a former Bain & Company consultant. Further, prior to receiving funding Glowing Plant hired a digital marketing firm to manage its Kickstarter and PR campaign. Though often portrayed as the product of the wisdom of the crowd, the pump was primed well before the Kickstarter campaign was underway. In this sense, Glowing Plant follows the classic Silicon Valley pattern of the well-supported disruptive startup pioneering a new market, consumer synthetic biology in this case, by forcing a product through a regulatory grey area.
Unsurprisingly, Glowing Plant has been the subject of much angst within DIYBio, both over the manner of the project’s exit from the DIYBio laboratory where the idea was hatched and the preliminary lab work conducted, and over the project’s aggressive approach to regulation. Most DIYBio laboratories ask for no monetary commitment beyond individual membership dues or class fees and struggle financially as membership often ebbs and flows. In this environment, the departure of a popular and compelling project from a lab creates a difficult gap to fill. Glowing Plant’s approach to regulation and blanket claims of environmental safety also threaten to bring regulatory scrutiny to DIYBio as a whole, which to date has been a modest and self-regulating field. Already, Kickstarter has issued a category ban on GMOs, and Glowing Plant has moved from working at a public DIYBio laboratory into a private laboratory at an undisclosed location.
All of which raises the question posed by the title: What is the relation between Glowing Plant’s ambitions and DIYBio’s oft-stated goals and code of ethics? The rhetorical appeal made in Glowing Plant’s Kickstarter video is not to the ideals or ethics of DIYBio, but rather to the frontier, which indexes an entirely different and distinctly American set of ideals. As co-founder Anthony Evans says in the Glowing Plant kickstarter video, “our generation’s frontier is synthetic biology, our guide nature itself.” Where the DIYBio code of ethics draws on commonalities across distal polities of amateur biologists to urge self-regulation, moderation, and action in the common interest of amateur inquiry, Evans’ appeal to the frontier connotes an unregulated individualism coupled to the exploitation of a peculiarly American approach to regulation, in which an action not explicitly illegal is implicitly allowed.