Plant a demon seed, raise a flower of fire. Plant a do-it-yourself biotech seed, raise a glowing plant. Certainly a harsh analogy, but the days of garage-tinkering with biotechnology are here to stay.
In April, when three California biohackers lit the fuse on a Kickstarter campaign to bioengineer a glowing plant, there was little initial interest. They were aiming for a modest $65,000: Every donor that dropped over $40 in the plate would get at least a packet of “glowing plant seed.” (The halcyon days of ordering Sea Monkeys from the back of a comic book have gone the way of the dinosaur.) The campaign exploded and from opening on April 23 to closing on June 7, almost 8,500 backers pledged $484,000.
The campaign’s success set off waves of controversy over regulation of DIY biotechnology. Antony Evans, Kyle Taylor and Omri Amirav-Drory had aimed for the first ever GM project on Kickstarter — and hit the bulls-eye. Critics came out of the woodwork. Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group tried to get Kickstarter to shut down the project, and even wrote to USDA requesting action: “This unregulated experiment would entail at least 238,000 seeds being planted in over 2,000 locations throughout the country. Donors could plant the seeds wherever they choose, meaning there could be field releases in tens of thousands of plots across the U.S.”
The storm wasn’t brewing over the glowing plants; that was old hat. Taking firefly or fluorescent jellyfish genes and sticking them in plants has been tinkered with many times before. (The quest to replace streetlights and reading lamps with luminous plants has become an El Dorado of sorts.) The furor was over regulation. Figuratively, if three DIYers are tucked away in a garage or backyard shed stirring a synthetic bio-cauldron, who will make sure they don’t loose a GM genie?
It’s a reasonable question and holds implications for both sides of the GM debate. As stated in the New York Times, the regulation and oversight that hovers over corporations and academic laboratories is being skirted because “… biotechnology has become cheap enough to give rise to a do-it-yourself movement.”
The anti-GM crowd fears the “hopeful monster” that might escape from an unregulated lab. Corporations and agribusiness fear being left in the cold — paying tens of millions for GM crop testing, while DIYers are wearing a golden grin. Tom Philpott, writing in Mother Jones, makes this prediction: “I imagine that synbio's current reputation as a democratic technology dominated by well-meaning amateurs will last just long enough to convince people that it requires little or no regulation. While this laissez-faire regime congeals into a settled fact, big agrichemical, pharmaceutical, and life-sciences firms will quietly take it over…” Granted, Philpott is an ardent opponent of GM crops, but considering the regulation chaos of a DIY Wild West, his guess is as good as any other.
In June, Scientific American interviewed Kyle Taylor, one of the three Kickstarter biohackers. “Academia has its playground that it plays in, industry has its playground that it plays in, and I think that leaves a gap for the DIYbio community to come in and do the sorts of projects that aren’t on the radar of either,” says Taylor.
“I think good stewardship is key, and I think that’s the conversation I would like to have. What is good stewardship?”
Indeed. What is?