Science & Technology

Replacing Street Lights With Glowing Trees

A tale of crowdsourced DIY bioengineering


How many do-it-yourself bioengineering enthusiasts does it take to change a light bulb? Apparently 8,433. That's how many individuals backed the Glowing Plant Project on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter earlier this year.

Spearheaded by two biologists and a former Bain & Company management consultant, the Glowing Plant Project has at least two goals. Long-term: creating trees that glow so powerfully through bioluminescence that they can function as street lights. Short-term: promoting grassroots innovation within the realm of synthetic biology. You no longer have to be Monsanto to hack Mother Nature.

The quest for irrigatable illumination has been going on since the mid-1980s, when researchers first successfully transplanted a gene present in fireflies into tobacco plants. By now you'd expect to see phosphorescent Marlboros casting an eerie glow in what few dive bars still allow smoking, but progress has been slow.

Things sped up last year after former Bain consultant Antony Evans watched biologist Omri Amirav-Drory give a presentation on the possibilities of using living organisms to produce energy, fuel, plastics, and fertilizers. Evans was inspired by Amirav-Drory's suggestion that armchair tinkerers, utilizing sophisticated but easy-to-use software and a "biological app store," might one day assemble the genetic material for producing a "renewable, self-assembled, solar-powered, sustainable street-lamp"—in other words, a bioluminescent oak tree.

While glowing oaks currently exist only in the imaginations of visionary scientists, lesser life forms have already gone through a couple of tangible upgrades. In 2010, for example, a group of U.S. scientists created a tobacco plant that produced light autonomously. (The 1980s version required the exogenous application of a compound called luciferin.) That same year, in England, another group of scientists produced bacteria that glowed with enough intensity to read by or function as emergency signage.

The technology, in short, was ripe for further investigation. So when Evans encountered Amirav-Drory at another event, the two men started talking about using the biologist's Genome Compiler software to develop an actual product instead of merely hinting at the possibility in Power Point presentations. It would be something less ambitious than a luminous oak, but ideally brighter than glow-in-the-dark tobacco.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are 26.5 million street lights in the United States. There's an additional 26.1 million highway fixtures. Small cities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on the electricity their street lights consume; big cities spend millions. While Los Angeles, Boston, and many other municipalities have been moving from lights that use high-pressure sodium (HPS) and metal halide (MH) bulbs to ones that use LEDs, which consume less energy, generate fewer carbon emissions, and require less maintenance, millions of the older-style street lights are still in operation. And even the LED versions require about half as much energy as the HPS and MH ones do, and they continue to emit carbon.

Trees, on the other hand, sequester carbon. They can also help reduce urban air temperatures. And they are relatively cost-effective to maintain. A report published in the December 2005 Journal of Forestry involving five cities found that they spent $13 to $65 per tree per year on maintenance. In contrast, Los Angeles spent $264 per street light in 2007 on maintenance costs alone (i.e., not including energy usage).

Glowing trees are "a very simple idea," Evans told me in a phone interview. "People have seen it in Avatar." With its paradigm-shifting sci-fi environmentalism and eye-catching visuals, turning plants into mood lighting is also the sort of project that seems genetically engineered for the highly viral domain of online fund raising. "We were thinking Kickstarter right from the beginning," Evans said. "We knew we needed money and that seemed like a good way to raise it."

They asked for $65,000. They got $484,013, from 8,433 backers. Eventually, around 6,000 of those backers, each of whom pledged at least $40 toward the project, will receive 50 to 100 genetically engineered seeds they can use to grow their own glowing plants. Another 210 backers, who pledged at least $250 apiece, will receive instructions and ingredients that will allow them to conduct further experiments and "transform [their] own plant at home, in [their] lab or at school."

This high-profile effort to democratize bioengineering has not sat well with environmental advocacy organizations such as Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group, which tried to get Kickstarter to remove the Glowing Plant Project from its site and publicly lambasted "the widespread and unregulated distribution of over half a million extreme-bioengineered seeds" to "6,000 random locations across the USA."

But Evans, at least, appears to maintain a fairly centrist perspective on the prospects of regulating this sector. "Agrobacteria is a plant pest," he said of the pathogen biologists often use in genetic engineering work, noting that it can transfer DNA between itself and other organisms. "If you were to release your plants and they still had bacterium on them, you could contaminate other people's plants. That would be a bad thing. That is something that should be regulated. But if we don't use that agrobacterium, then there's a much lower risk of causing damage to agriculture."

For their prototypes in the lab, Evans, Amirav-Drory, and their partner, biologist Kyle Taylor, are using agrobacterium to transfer newly designed DNA sequences into arabidopsis, a small plant belonging to the mustard family. But once they determine which new DNA sequences are most effective at increasing the plant's bioluminescence—a process that will likely take several months—they'll transfer the DNA to the seeds they'll be distributing to their backers via something called a "gene gun," a process that involves no agrobacterium.

That's why the seeds are unregulated: The Department of Agriculture doesn't believe they constitute a threat of any sort. "Regarding synthetic biologics, if they do not pose a plant risk, APHIS does not regulate it," a spokesperson from the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service explained to Nature in June 2013.

For now, legacy street light manufacturers seem safe from the prospect of glowing trees. In June, Evans estimated that his team would have its first prototype plants by October. "Then, we'll start tinkering with different [DNA] designs, to see what gets the best glowing effects." That process will also last several months. According to Evans, the project will likely begin to produce the seeds it has promised to its backers around the end of January 2014.

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.