‘Glowing Plants‘ is a kickstarter project which is set to create the first publicly available bioluminescent plants. To do this, they will be adding the luciferase-luciferin gene system into the model organism Arabidopsis thaliana. Expanding on previous work done by the State University of New York and the University of Cambridge iGEM team, this synthetic biology project is truly exciting. What makes this project different is how widespread these plants will be disseminated, with over 5000 backers already. This project is the most successful biological crowdfunded campaign ever, and is setting a precedent for future projects which might seek funding this way.
I was lucky enough to get an interview with Antony Evans the project manager of Glowing Plants. Check out the kickstarter video for glowing plants and our exclusive interview after the break.
For this week’s video of the week we have a short “scinemation” which visually explains the basics of Synthetic Biology. This video was produced by RiAUS, a non-profit Australian science-outreach organisation. Check it out after the break!
The Parker Lab at Harvard University has incredibly created an artificial ‘jellyfish’ from nothing but rat heart cells. The lab has dubbed their creation a “medusoid” and they are using it to understand the fundamental laws of muscular pumps (such as the heart). Parker remarked about the work:
“Usually when we talk about synthetic life forms, somebody will take a living cell and put new genes in. We built an animal. It’s not just about genes, but about morphology and function.”
As truly impressive as this seems, it does slightly gloss over the issue that this “organism” could hardly be considered life under most definitions. It has scarce cell diversity, requires an electrical pulse to move, is not capable of maintaining homeostasis, and cannot reproduce. Nonetheless this is an important first step in the direction of engineering novel organisms from scratch.
Read an article about the work from Nature here. The original paper can be found here. Check out two videos of the jellyfish swimming after the break.
In this week’s video of the week we have a short profile of the work and opinions of Karmella Haynes, a synthetic biologists. The video is a great introduction to the field and a small insight into the life of a synthetic biologist. Check it out here.
In an opinion piece posted on Monday, Claire Marris and Nikolas Rose (sociologists at King’s College, London) argue that the ethics debate over synthetic biology needs to “get real” and focus on the current applications of the technology. Check out the article here.
Commentators instead focus on potential reckless use or misuse, overestimate the pathogenic possibilities, and worry about deep questions such as: “Do we have the right to play God?”. These worries are the flip side of grand claims about synthetic biology’s imminent ability to solve challenges in health, environment and energy. Utopias and dystopias seem to be the only scenarios possible.
This way of framing discussions is unhelpful. It is an example of “speculative ethics” that distracts us from less exciting but more pressing questions. What are synthetic biologists actually doing? How easy, or difficult, is it proving? What applications are they realistically going to develop in the short to medium term? What is their intended purpose, and to what extent could these contribute to the public good?