The First Ever Synthetic Biology Kickstarter Is About Growing ‘Glowing Plants’

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Kickstarter might be better known for funding films and hardware projects, but it’s now getting its first synthetic biology proposal. A Singularity University alum, a Stanford post-doc and a Stanford Ph.D. are looking to use synthetic biology and software from startup Genome Compiler to creating plants that glow.

While the first several generations of plants might be weaker at emitting light, the long-term idea is to replace electric or gas lighting with natural lighting from plants.

“We live in a world that is generating too much carbon dioxide,” said Antony Evans, who is one of the three people behind the project. “Nature has figured out ways of creating energy that don’t require so much CO2 use, and what we really want to do is awaken people to the potential of that. Instead of having all these expensive street lights, why don’t we get plants?”

With the project, they’re inserting bioluminescence genes into a small flowering plant called Arabidopsis that’s part of the mustard family.

They’re looking for $65,000 in funding to print DNA sequences they’ve designed using the Genome Compiler software and then to create rewards for backers like “Maker” kits that let you create your own glowing plants. The startup associated with the project, Genome Compiler, lets people easily design genetic sequences and order them online.


The project comes at a time when costs around both genome sequencing and DNA printing are falling precipitously. Printing DNA at this points costs at least 25 cents per base pair. So for an 8,000-character sequence, they’re looking at at least $2,000 per unique sequence.

They’ll test a number of experimental sequences and print them with partner and Silicon Valley startup Cambrian Genomics, which has made a DNA laser printing system that cuts the cost of DNA synthesis dramatically. Then they’ll use bacteria as a vector to insert the new DNA into the plant.

Evans, who doesn’t have a background in biology at all, got into the field through Singularity University and Biocurious, a bio-hacking space down in Sunnyvale.

His bet is that the next decade will usher in a new era where it’s as easy to hack on animal or plant genomes as it is to build software with Python or Rails. The cost of sequencing a full human genome is falling even faster than Moore’s law would suggest at a current rate $8,000 down from $100 million in 2001. Not only that, DNA printing is getting cheaper as well with companies like Genscript.

They’ve also gone through the regulatory process to ensure that the project is compliant with U.S. law. Regulators from the USDA and EPA are naturally concerned that synthetic plants could become pests and crowd out or compete with natural plants for resources. They check for whether newly designed life forms have genes associated with pests; Evans has cleared this. The third agency that regulates synthetic biology experiments, the FDA, isn’t really involved here because these “Glowing Plants” are inedible.