Synthetic strife

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Synthetic strife

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The story

Synthetic life has gone mainstream. Since I wrote about Craig Venter’s work on creating synthetic cells this technology is now available to anyone with a lab so I guess it’s not surprising that companies are now making, and selling, ‘synthetic biology’ organisms.

You might be aware that a Kickstarter funded project has made enough money to produce and supply genetically engineered glowing plants to anyone who wants one. Now, for many people, including the thousands that pledged money, this is great.  However, if you stop to think about it this is a bad idea, a very bad idea.

Now, don’t get me wrong I am not against scientific advancement and synthetic biology has many useful applications (even the glowing plants could be used instead of streetlights in the future – see link to article below). However, I am against unregulated use of this technology. How many times have you taught about GM organisms and discussed the regulations needed to start developing them, how tightly controlled their growing is and how much evidence has to be accumulated before they can be sold? These are processes that take many, many years and miles of red tape for very good reasons. However, if you want a GM plant you can now just buy one. Plant it in your garden, watch how it grows. Maybe it will be so successful that it will out compete all the other plants so you have the botanic equivalent of Blackpool illuminations in your back yard – what joy!

Teaching ideas

This story would be a great addition to a lesson on genetic modification of plants. If you show the video at the start and then ask the class if they want a glowing plant then I am guessing it will be an astounding ‘yes please!’.

You could use this example to explain how plants are genetically modified using Agrobacterium or gold nanoparticles. This is explained by the scientists in the video (note that they are not allowed to sell plants created using the bacteria because of regulations but they are allowed to sell the final product!).  You could discuss the uses of glowing plants as street lights and the advantages this would bring.

Then, looking at the flip-side, the disadvantages: the worry about the plants out-competing others and reducing biodiversity, the glowing genes being transferred into the genome of other organisms. Stress that it is unregulated – no tests have been carried out on long-term effects. Students could then vote again on if they think this is a good idea. You could also discuss with them if they feel the same way about other GM plants that are grown in this country and if not, why not.


News article on the glowing plants and how they could be used as street lights

Report with video on protests over GM wheat