At the time, it was one of the most famous and controversial crowdfunding campaigns that existed. It was a group of scientists who wanted to do something that’s considered a fantasy. Glowing plants that serve to illuminate all kinds of spaces, from interior to exterior. But the results of the project leave us thinking about the future of biotech.

The glowing plants crowdfunding and biotechnology

What would you think if someone told you that it’s possible to make a plant glow? In the ​​biology area, this is known as bioluminescence and it’s the ability of a living being to produce light. This is a feature possessed by certain marine animals, fungi and microscopic organisms. And it happens through a direct conversion of chemical energy to light energy.

There are no conventional plants that can produce their own light in this way. But scientist Antony Evans thought that synthetic biology and special software could make this a reality. So in 2013, he forms a large team of specialists and scientists. To create the Glowing Plant Project, an initiative that sought to create glowing plants for the world.

Glowing Plant Project Kickstarter
“What if we use trees to light our streets instead of street lamps? What if you could get lighting without electricity?” were the opening sentences of the glowing plants project’s presentation. Source: Popular Science

Within the campaign’s description, he explains how this would be possible. Mainly through synthetic biology, which allows one to rewrite the “code” that a plant’s DNA contains. This code determines how it’ll look like and what attributes it’ll have, including of course the ability to glow. A software to design and order their genetic sequences was also made, called Genome Compiler.

A crowdfunding campaign was created to finance the project. Which would allow the creation of these glowing plants and their subsequent distribution. People could have their own seeds to plant at home. Sooner than later, the campaign exceeded its goal of $65,000. And it obtained a total of $484,013 at the end, being a great success. But what would happen later would surprise all its contributors.

The unexpected results of the campaign

The mere idea of ​​creating a genetically modified organism (GMO) and selling it openly caused controversy. Especially within the scientific community. Antony Evans and his team had difficulty shipping the product due to strict restrictions regarding the distribution of GMOs in some countries. However, this was only a hint of what would happen soon.

An article in The Atlantic explains what went wrong. After getting financed, the project would have been extended for three years. But people would be waiting endlessly for the glowing plants. It turns out that the team discovered that the process to create a glowing plant was more complex than they thought. For a plant to glow as they wanted, they had to insert 6 genes into its DNA.

How to make glowing plants Kickstarter
To create glowing plants, firefly genes are extracted. But inserting all these genes at the same time in a plant’s genome to make it shine and illuminate spaces is very complex. Source: Wiring Diagrams

No matter how hard they tried, they couldn’t make the plant glow as it was supposed to. They barely made several plants produce a dim light, but only that. So on August 22, 2017, they had to announce the bad news. The project had run out of money and would have to be canceled. That’s when the dreams of thousands of people were destroyed.

Although it didn’t achieve its purpose, this campaign was a milestone in the history of biotechnology. Antony Evans envisioned a future where GMOs weren’t just a thing of high-tech corporations. But something that anyone could have at home. Ergo, he wanted to democratize access to GMOs. The fascination that people felt for this campaign, showed there’s a willingness to support biotech projects.

Biotech Startups Bolt Threads
After the success of the glowing plants, many people and investors have focused on biotech startups. Some of them have raised millions of dollars, like Bolt Threads. Yarn made based on “spider silk”. Source: VentureBeat

Antony Evans left the glowing plants aside and dedicated himself to creating scented mosses. Which are easier to create and market. For now, it looks like it’ll take more time before we can see the first glowing tree in the world. But this was a step towards a future full of biotech startups that people are willing to finance through crowdfunding.

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Related: How Crowdfunding Has Driven The Development Of India

Would you like to have your own glowing plant…?

Photograph used for the entry’s main picture taken from Genetic Literacy Project