â€œWhat if someone decides it would be cute to light up a national forest?â€ asked Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University and an adviser to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on synthetic biology, in a front page Washington Post article on the Kickstarted effort to produce plants that glow. Puhleez!
Caplan is usually more sensible than that sensationalist comment makes him seem, so I suspect a bit of journalist selectivity in citing him. Anyway, the Post article is an example of overwrought (and pointless) handwringing about do-it-yourself biotechnology. Last month, Reason contributing editor Greg Beato highlighted the Glowing Plant Project in which a group of DIY biotechnologists plan to insert light-emitting genes from bacteria into thale cress. They then plan to send along packets of seeds to their Kickstarter supporters who can amaze their friends with their cool new plant nightlights.
Naturally, the usual bunch of luddites oppose the project. As the Post reports:
Deeming it â€œa new biotech threat coming from Silicon Valley,â€ the environmental watchdog ETC Group started an online petition calling on Kickstarter to shut down the project. Nearly 14,000 people signed it.
Let's assume that some supporters decide to plant their thale cress outdoors. What is the worst that could happen? It would grow along side of other thale cress. Since it glows in the dark, it might even draw more attention from predators who think of it as a salad green.
But seriously folks, over the past 30 years, no plant varieties enhanced by modern biotechnology have become pests. It is extremely unlikely that a tiny glow-in-the-dark plant will do so. ETC and the other activists are just fearmongering for money and attention.
Disclosure and Conflict of Interest: I am one the Kickstarter supporters of the project and am eagerly awaiting my packet of seeds next September. I haven't decided where to plant them yet.