Saturday Morning Chit Chat – Can We Take DIY Too Far?

Can We Take DIY Too FarWhat happens when a number of things you like also become a number of things that worry you? I was listening to the radio when I came across a story that simultaneously intrigued, excited and worried me.   There was an entrepreneurial element, a do it yourself philosophy, a crowd sourcing activity,  innovation and an environmental focus, all things I think are pretty cool. It also had an entrepreneurial element, a do it yourself philosophy, a crowd sourcing activity, innovation and an environmental focus that made me think…was there a touch of mad scientist about it? Was what they were doing safe, ethical…wise?

So what was causing me this dilemma? My challenge was, glowing  plants.  Yup, you read me right. Glowing plants sit at the centre of my conundrum.  Let me back up a bit for those of you who haven’t come across this gem.  Three guys from California known  as biohackers, (no I’d never heard of that term before) were working on engineering a plant that would glow in the dark.  The idea was that if you could get the plant to the right luminosity (a 60 watt bulb…no pun intended) you could use the plants as an alternative to electrical lighting.  This new technology could reduce the amount of light noise that is so prevalent in cities, that glow that blocks the stars.  What’s more, with our glowing plants we could reduce the strain on our hydro electrical systems.  Imagine not worrying about the usual summer blackouts or the more terrifying winter ones.

These Do-It-Yourself scientists from a  lab called, BioCurious used social media to reach out and grab attention.  They asked for donations for their research and in return, they would share their seeds with investors.  They started out with a goal of raising $65,000 but ended up bringing in over $480,000. Who knew glowing plants would have so much appeal?

The thing is, these guys would be working outside of any university, institute or regulatory body. This is where my conundrum shows up. I’ve worked in the health sector for while now.  Have heard endlessly about the concerns pharmacists had around everything from poor prescribing to poor disposal of chemicals…strange things happen when you put a drug in the wrong place, whether that place is your body or the environment.  I’ve also had enough pharmaceutical manufacturing clients and partners to know the degree of review and oversight they put in place to ensure safety.  However, despite what can sometimes seem like insurmountable regulatory roadblocks, drugs can still make it to the public that might do harm.  That isn’t because no one cared or someone wasn’t diligent, it’s because you can’t always discover what the full effects of a drug are until it’s been used by thousands of people. It’s also because once a drug is on the market secondary uses are often discovered and then the drug can be given to an entirely new group of individuals before full trials are conducted.

How safe was it then for these biohackers  to distribute their seeds to people anywhere in the world simply based on their financial contributions?  What impact could these plants have on our environment…on us? Needless to say the entire project sparked a whole debate around  modified foods/agriculture and of course, how they had worked their way around the regulatory system. Social media is pretty powerful stuff. You can read more about it on the link below or listen in on the podcast from the CBC.

What do think?  Cool new take on Power-Plant or really just a scary Franken-Flower?

[polldaddy poll=7295290]

Results from last weeks poll reveal, that just over 35% of us fall for the lure of stats, another 35% are occasionally seduced by their call and a clever 28% are just not biting.

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0 responses to “Saturday Morning Chit Chat – Can We Take DIY Too Far?

  • I’ve never heard of breeding plants with something other than plants before. Sure, they could ship them anywhere but would the customs of that country allow the untested seeds to enter?

  • As a lover of nature and my garden, I can not grasp the concept of a glowing plant. I also worry about the long term ramifications that this type of Frankenstein type of science can produce. 🙂

    • I think one of the most interesting aspects of this research is what it reveals to us about other similar research that has flown below the radar because it has gone through all of the normal processes. The splicing of animal and plant is far from new.

  • Glynis Jolly says:
    August 5, 2013 @ 08:15 am

    I find it frightening too. What are they putting into the air, or into their garbage that is picked up by the local garbage collector?

    • Both good questions Glynis. The optimist in me says that they realize that what they are doing has the potential do good and do harm. I believe as a result of some of the uproar that followed people realizing what was going on they are now reaching out to ecologist for input.

  • I answered I’m not sure because I don’t know enough. But I do think distributing untested seeds can be problematic if there has been no scientific testing.

    • I’m with you Jeanette. There isn’t much known at this point but the interest from so many different people assures us that everyone will be watching and no doubt trying to participate in the process.

  • I am a little concerned. I am someone who has difficulty with my diet as you know and a huge contributor to that is the crap that they keep adding to our food. That is a side effect that they have not taken into account and it seems have no desire to!
    I don’t know if a glowing plant could possibly do any harm, but the potential is there. It will be interesting to know more. Playing with nature, even if it is sounds like a great idea and less hurtful to the environment, isn’t always a good idea.

    • Becc you raise a some of the reasons a little more consideration is required. The good news is that the issue has captured a lot of attention from many different places. From environmentalists to government regulators, there is interest in seeing how this will progress.

  • I think that the stoners of this world would be upset if they end up being glowing pot plants. Of course, it would make finding their weed at night a lot easier! LOL 🙂

  • Found your article really interesting, Debra. It’s the first time I hear about glowing plants. But what I find most amazing is that they managed to get $480,000 in funding. Not least since it’s presumably it’s a project that may or may not turn out to succeed. But then again it makes sense since anyting that saves our planet is hugely popular. But to be honest it occured to me, when I read your article, that this could be a pie in the sky. But hopefully not.

    • Catarina that’s the part that fascinates me with this story. Yes glowing plants are a very interesting idea and the potential positive good, amazing, but when you think about how hard it is raise research dollars for independent research, what they did is astonishing. The forum they used, to raise the money (Kickstarter) eventually removed the project because of the controversy over the independent nature of the research, but I wonder if they would have raised even more if they would have been allowed to keep going. It makes me wonder if they haven’t opened to door on a completely new approach to funding research…crowd-sourcing.

      The project is under-way and because of the concern over safety they are now looking for input amongst the scientists community, particularly ecologists, for help in setting boundaries. No doubt there will be a raft of other politics and financial issues that will emerge, but whether it was intentional or not they have started something new.

  • The title mislead me – I thought it would be something about over-controlling people who prefer to do things themselves rather than paying to specialists to do it professionally (like cleaning your car, or fixing your engine, and stuff like that) – silly me 😀

    Anyways, I am glad I read it – it is an interesting post, Debra! I can certainly see the potential of glowing plants but as some people before me said – it’s worrisome that one can easily raise so much money for an independent project run by scientists that fancy themselves with the name “biohackers”? Well, it sounds shady, it looks shady, and added the lack of regulatory (especially the health hazard you describe in the post) – it most probably IS shady…

    Any more info about the research available? Is this the same project by Antony Evans from San Francisco?

    • Sorry for the confusion…on many fronts. I don’t know that the scientist involved in the glowing plant project are “shady” but more that their approach to research is unusual. In many respects the most interesting piece here is that they are doing the work outside of the typical structures. The term biohackers is I think in keeping with with the unusual approach, but from what I gather, it is a trendy name that could be applied to any scientist who explores genetic modifications.

      If you follow the links at the bottom of the post you can learn more about the research, yes it is the work of Anthony Evans and two others.

  • My view: combining animal or insect DNA with plant DNA is growing down a dark road with no guide. We have no clue what this could do to our environment at all. The trouble we are running into already with sanctioned GMOs is bad enough. Imagine the horror stories that will come from this research.

    • Jon, I hate to tell you, but we’ve already started down this road. Scientists have put genes from fish into strawberries in an attempt to make the strawberries more resistant to frost. Some corn and potato plants have been engineered to produce an insecticide. There has been wheat with chicken, safflower with carp, Norweigan rat with soybeans…the list goes on. Genetically modified plants are not as rare as we may think. In fact we eat them all the time without realizing.

      I remember a several years ago a friend of mine was in France on holiday and she went to the grocery store for fruit. When she asked the store clerk where the seedless grapes were the most interesting response followed. Not only did the store not carry seedless grapes but the shop keeper was appalled at the idea…grapes don’t grow that way…period. They had never heard of nor wanted anything to do with seedless fruit.

  • As cool as a glow in the dark plant would be on the same hand it seems very Dr. Who – ish. I find it amazing that so many people would help fund this project.

  • Thanks for sharing this. I am actually excited about a glowing plant however I am concerned about its impact on health and environment.

  • Well Deb, you know I see things quite differently, or at least look at them that way. So first, there is the issue of plants dependent on electrical light – or am I reading that wrong? The other is the issue of regulatory bodies – you infer that there is an ethical wisdom inherent in them – I just don’t see that, not at all.

    • Lawrence the plants luminosity would be internal and would come from merging the plant DNA with that of fireflies. As for the regulatory bodies, for us here in Canada, our regulatory body obliges applicants to use research ethics boards in the oversight of the conduct of clinical trials, in fact they have to obtain approval from a regulatory board for each clinical trial site. The same applies in the U.S. and universities and health institutes also require the approval of recognized ethics review committees/boards prior to research being started. Even for simple studies that do not involve the public or animals, this is a requirement.

  • If the plants are not tested according to standard protocol, I’d just call the glow plant Franken-plants. In a way, it’s scary that so much money can be raised for an independent project that is not subject to regulations. All sorts of horrific scenarios could result. Yikes.

    • Jeri I think one of the most interesting aspects about this whole thing is what is implies for our regulatory system…in fact how we do research has the potential to change incredibly. It makes the imagination run rampant…and to think we got nervous about the ability to manufacture rubber guns with 3D printers.

  • Interesting but I do think the plant should be tested in a controlled environment. Whatever causes the light might be able to transfer to other plants via pollination or soil contamination. The other plants might be edible and you would then have a potential hazard to human health. Plus any light source hampers fireflies from breeding.

    • As I understand it, the researchers are looking to introduce DNA from fireflies to the plants, that still doesn’t tell me if it’s safe for the environment or as you say, what would happen with cross pollination or insect life….I have images from the movie Avatar in my head.

  • What a fascinating post, Debra! I’d not previously heard of these glow plants! I voted “Not sure” because I really don’t know enough about it to have made an intelligent analysis. I’ll try and look up the podcast. Thanks for sharing the info!

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