x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Bright ideas light up new sector

Conceived as a way to boost awareness about the field of synthetic biology, or ¿syn bio¿ as geeks of the trade like to call it, the Glowing Plant project also aimed to distribute seeds for plants that would be capable of emitting light.

The eyes of a genetically modified mosquito glowing red under ultraviolet light. Getty Images/SPL RM
The eyes of a genetically modified mosquito glowing red under ultraviolet light. Getty Images/SPL RM

What if we used trees to light our streets instead of electric lamp posts?

That simple yet profound question was posed at the beginning of an online promotional video, which was recently used to raise funds for the Glowing Plant project. Conceived as a way to boost awareness about the field of synthetic biology, or "syn bio" as geeks of the trade like to call it, the project also aimed to distribute seeds for plants that would be capable of emitting light.

To raise funds for this scheme, researchers behind the project turned to Kickstarter.com, a crowdfunding site that accepts money from interested members of the public. All told, the researchers raised more than US$484,000 by the end of their campaign on June 7, considerably more than their initial $65,000 target but short of the $500,000 "stretch" goal they later set as the campaign grew in popularity.

Through the project, some seeds of glowing plants have now been sold so that backers will be able to spread and grow them whenever, and wherever, they want.

"We are really just looking at this as a stand-alone project now," says Antony Evans, the project manager for Glowing Plant, whose legal entity name is Senstore. "It's clear there's demand for glowing plants, so in the future, we plan to work on bigger plants and, of course, making them brighter."

The field of synthetic biology is growing in different parts of the world. This science involves the use of biotechnology firms that alter genetic code in plants and animals by taking the genetic information from a useful feature in one organism and adding it into another one.

This sector is being tapped to produce cheaper and more efficient biofuels as well as to excrete the precursors of medical drugs. Companies in the biotech field are also developing products used in agriculture, food and industrial production.

Overall, the global biotechnology industry is forecasted to earn US$262 billion in revenue this year, having increased at an annual rate of 11 per cent over the past five years, according to the market research data from IBISWorld.

But some firms, including Glowing Plant, are discovering it is more difficult to find funds than they originally thought.

"There are a few hurdles," says Anna Son, a healthcare industry analyst who covers biotechnology for IBISWorld. "One of them would be raising capital. Before, it was easier, and start-ups especially had better access to venture capital."

Most of the industry's revenue is still generated within the United States and Europe. The main operators are typically based in geographic clusters made up of firms connected to the biotech industry, such as specialised suppliers and associated research institutions that include hospitals and universities.

"This is largely because companies are small, young, reliant on consistent flows of investment capital or are affiliated or spun off from a university," according to the report from IBISWorld.

Yet companies based in the Asia-Pacific region are expected to see major growth over the next five years. And for the first time this year, the UAE was included in the Scientific American Worldview Scorecard, a list that was issued by the Biotechnology Industry Organisation and ranked the Emirates as 40th out of 54 for innovation and potential within the biotech industry.

The subsector that specialises in genetically modified plants - and glowing plants, more specifically - originally sprouted up more than 25 years ago, when scientists created the first radiating tobacco plant.

More recently, though, the idea to create glowing plants for the Kickstarter project came about after Mr Evans and Omri Amirav-Drory, a biochemist who runs a company called Genome Compiler, completed a summer programme together at Singularity University, a non-profit learning institution in Silicon Valley. Their inspiration: fireflies and aquatic luminescence, which is how animals and plants create and reflect light under water.

"We were chatting [over] lunch at the alumni event about making a glowing plant and so we decided to make it happen," says Mr Evans. "It's just such a sci-fi concept, which remarkably is actually possible."

Genome Compiler is an important piece of this puzzle. The company operates a programme that can design DNA sequences and says it can programme living things "the same way that we design computer code".

So how exactly does all of this fit together to create a glowing plant?

First, experts find the genes in fireflies that make them glow. Genome Compiler's software then rejigs the genes so the plant itself can read what the genes are. These genes then get shipped away (by FedEx or a similar service) and put into a liquid known as agrobacteria.

This concoction, in turn, is used to help to transfer the right genes to the plant to make it glow.

The process does sound like sci-fi, as Mr Evans notes, and it is not yet clear how big a business this might become.

Some may assume the complicated science would hinder the venture. But Mr Evans argues that dealing with biology is the "easy part".

"The biggest challenges are addressing the legal and regulatory aspects of the project and managing the public opinion," he says. "Genetically engineered plants are controversial."

Indeed, environmental groups such as ETC Group, an international organisation based in the United States dedicated to "the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights", have raised concerns to organisations within the US, warning about the dangers of the random and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds and plants created from synthetic biology techniques.

"To our knowledge, this would be the first ever intentional environmental release of an avowedly 'synthetic biology' organism in the world," the ETC wrote in a letter to Mr Evans last month, asking him to remove his project on Kickstarter.

"As you are no doubt aware, synthetic biology, while well funded industrially, is still an immature and highly experimental field and not ready for field release," ETC's letter added. "Those life forms are alive, viable, reproducing and their behaviour outside the laboratory is at this point impossible to predict. It is for this reason that many of those who have so far addressed the question of how to govern this new and emerging field have erred on the side of caution and recommended against releasing synthetic organisms to the environment at this time."

In response to this concern, Mr Evans sent a letter of his own to ETC. In it, he said his team was using the term synthetic biology in its most general sense.

"The technology we are using is functionally the same as that which has been used in the creation of many other biotechnology products over the last two decades," Mr Evans wrote in a letter that he shared with The National.

"What is different about this project is the way we are funded, through public donations," he added.

"Our primary goal with the project is to inspire and educate the general public regarding the potential benefits of this technology. It is our opinion that this technology should not be the exclusive preserve of large corporations but that the benefits it brings should be available to everyone."

Whatever the outcome, the prospect of avenues of illuminating trees is an enticing one, at least visually.

 

business@thenational