May 072013
 

An Israeli company seeks to use a loophole in US regulations on genetically engineered plants to conduct a mass release of a genetically modified organism (a glow in the dark Arabidopsis plant) with no regulatory review. Current US regulations, which would apply if the plant were modified using non-synthetic techniques, don’t cover the new gene insertion methods being promoted by synthetic biology companies. Friends of the Earth (FOE) and Action on Erosion, Technology and Concentration (ETC) want U.S. regulators to prohibit unregulated release of engineered organisms into the environment.  European regulations already prohibit such releases. See article and links below.

[Update: 5/8/13:  ETC “Kickstopper” Campaign Takes Aim at
SynBio Kickstarter Effort to Distribute Synthetically Engineered Seeds
]

 New York Times coverage: A Dream of Trees Aglow at Night

Glow-in-The-Dark Plant Makes Activists See Red

By Anna Leach

Published in Wall Street Journal Tech Blog

An Israeli startup selling genetically-modified glow-in-the-dark plants over the Web has drawn the ire of environmentalists who are demanding it be withdrawn.

“We object to this distribution with no oversight. It’s an irresponsible move,” Jim Thomas, Research Director of Montreal-based Action on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, said Tuesday

Firefly genes embedded in the DNA of the Glowing Plant allow it to glow faintly in the dark, in a design created by Genome Compiler Corp’s gene software. The Glowing Plant is available for the public to preorder now over crowd-funding platform Kickstarter.

More than 3,000 people have already paid $40 for the seeds that will be mailed out when the lab begins to synthesize the plants in June.

Environmental groups have asked crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to shut the project down and have written to the Genome Compiler asking for the seed-mailout to be stopped.

The complaint signed by Friends of the Earth U.S. and Action on Erosion, Technology and Concentration last week, says that the Kickstarter project would lead to the “widespread, random and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds” which “poses real world risks to the environment.”

The seeds are legal in some parts of the world, said Mr. Thomas, but they exploit a lack of regulation in a new area. The plants are not legal in Europe and cannot be shipped there, the Kickstarter page explains.

Omri Amirav-Drory, CEO of Genome Compiler, has no intention of taking seeds off Kickstarter. “It’s legal, it’s ethical, it’s beautiful and it’s important and we’re not going to stop what we’re doing,” he said.

“You can always ask for 50 years of field tests, but that seems unreasonable. Nature is always making new stuff. Companies are constantly engineering new crops with resistance to pests.”

“This is the first synthetic biology project to be open to the public, it’s not locked up in the lab and that’s very important, it’s important to have this in the classrooms, in our hands so that people can understand genetically modified organisms and not be afraid of them.”

Mr. Amirav-Drory said that the small glowing plants complied with U.S. regulations, were toxin-free and wouldn’t survive in the wild.

John Ward, Professor of Synthetic Biology at University College London, said that the actual effect a glow-in-the-dark gene would have would have on local environments would be negligible.

“The actual genetic mutation in the plant, which would be luciferase genes, are not any kind of threat. It just makes it glow slightly. That’s not going to give it any kind of competitive advantage in nature, which is the only way that the gene could thrive.”

Provided the product wasn’t violating the laws of the country, said Mr. Ward, the debate was mainly philosophical: “If you allow that insulin and many cancer therapies are made by genetic manipulation, we see that the technique can be benign and beneficial. It’s philosophical whether you see it as different because it’s a company doing for advertising purposes.”

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