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As the costs of genetic engineering decrease and the tools get easier to use, some tinkering with federal laws may be in order as well. “The regulations are quite opaque,” Evans said. “It took us a lot of work to figure out what you can and can’t do, and even with that research, there are people who say we’ve interpreted the rules wrong. So the government could do some work in making the processes you have to go through clearer.” He also suggested that having multiple federal agencies oversee this domain creates bottlenecks. “I think it might make more sense to have a dedicated single regulator who looks at the whole space as one.”
The biggest bottleneck is likely to be nature itself, which often moves more slowly than even regulators. “It takes a long time for a tree to grow,” Evans says. “When you can only do one experiment per tree growth cycle, that is obviously a pretty slow process!”
To accelerate the rate of experimentation will require new tools. “One thing that would help is better simulation technologies,” Evans notes. If scientists could simulate all the different cell types for a tree, they wouldn’t have to wait for trees to grow to know if their experiments were working. Evans also imagines bio-printers that could print mature leaves, and gene therapy techniques that would allow them to adjust the DNA of already-mature trees.
As hundreds, then thousands of people begin to use Genome Compiler and related tools to design and produce their own new organisms, the rate of innovation will likely accelerate. In a few years’ time, 2014’s glowing plants may be thought of the way we now see 1974’s personal computers—more proof of concept than useful product, a dim beacon lighting the way forward for thousands of innovators intent on creating some dazzling future we are only just beginning to imagine. Christmas tree light manufacturers, you have been warned.