Thursday, May 30, 2013

Kickstarter's Ill-Conceived Support for Extreme Biotechnology

In late April, a Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise money to produce glowing plants. The venture was plugged as environmental: if trees could glow in the dark, we could save energy and resources because we wouldn't have to line our streets with streetlights.

We could use trees instead.

The project falls under the radar of the typical biotech activist. It is not a food, so the growing number of health-conscious consumers may not care. It is also not being produced by a biotech giant, but rather by a handful of young businessmen/scientists. This might neutralize the concern of those fighting Monsanto because they hate monopolies and big business. Environmentalists may actually find themselves enamoured with the whole idea of "glowing plants": it is purportedly "sustainable", after all, allowing us to reduce our energy usage. Right?

Does this mean we shouldn't be concerned?

No. From what I understand, this initiative is potentially one of the most dangerous yet -not just because of very real ecological risks but also because of the precedence it could set. Even though the trees are not produced by Monsanto or Dupont, nor are they generating their own pesticides (such as some GMO foods), the potential risks are enormous. Let me outline them them briefly:

1) Like all engineered organisms, the glowing plants will have unintended side effects. The inserted firefly genes may well be benign in fireflies, but that does not provide any evidence that they will be harmless in plants. The interactions between the firefly genes and the plant's own genes will cause each to behave in potentially unpredictably ways. This is known as "pleiotropy" and I have written about it before. Even if their are no pleiotropic effects (and this would require extensive study) their may be direct ecological effects. For example, how might glowing trees affect the behavior of moths? Of bats? Of birds and squirrels that build nests in them? Or even of ants? Migrating birds already die in colossal numbers because they get confused at night from the lights in big buildings and fly right into the glass. Note that this was not anticipated (and probably not likely anticipatable!) when we began constructing tall glass buildings. We cannot assume that there will be not behavioral changes and it is easy to imagine some frightening scenarios that might occur.

2) The founder of the glowing plants campaign, Antony Evans (pictured on the left... by the way, don't send them hate mail - it is better to educate him), has a reckless marketing gimmick: they will send 100 free "glowing plant" seeds to anyone who contributes over $40 to their project. To date, over six thousand people have signed on, and so hundreds of thousands of these genetically engineered seeds are set to be distributed across North America to all these funders. The problem is that no government agency is testing, regulating, or overseeing these transactions. Kickstarter is allowing fundraising for a type of technology that no government even knows how to regulate.

3) The project is being fundraised through a crowdsourcing platform. If successful, then others, also intent on creating any number of chimeras and monsters, will be able to raise money as well. We may well see dozens or hundreds of independent biohackers raising money online to reprogram organisms. As Huffington Post writer Jim Thomas points out, in the near future, people may soon be able purchase organisms with designed characteristics off the internet as nonchalantly as we now purchase apps from iTunes. If these are not regulated, hundreds or thousands of novel organisms could flood our ecosystems. Keep in mind that the introduction of novel species into ecosystems is already the second biggest cause of species extinction (behind habitat destruction). If this project sets a precedent and hundreds like it are allowed to emerge, biodiversity and the ecosystems that life produces, are in grave danger. This is not an apocalyptic environmentalist fear-mongering. We have ample evidence that new species make other species go extinct and can destabilize the resilience and functionality of ecosystems.

4) Green-tech solutions often eclipse our vision of what really needs to be done. We spend millions of dollars tinkering in labs when we should be spending that money protecting ecosystems. The cheapest and most effective way of attending to the ecological crisis is by conserving ecosystems, which provide trillions of dollars in services for free every year. Green-tech solutions are often hopelessly misguided anyway. How green are glowing plants really expected to be? Are streetlights really what are draining our energy resources? Seems like the smallest fraction of the problem to me, and new LED streetlights are providing impressive advances in efficiency. Green-tech solutions feed the inner tech-geek in us, but they scarcely provide meaningful solutions to the real problems we face.

5) My fifth point is unabashedly sentimental. I admit, it might be "cool" to see a glowing tree. But I certainly don't want to live in a world where the trees lining the streets are glowing at night. Where the new "normal" is to not have the spontaneous beauty and elegance of a growing tree eclipsed by some nerdy tinkerer's get-famous-quick scheme. There is already far too little 'nature' allowed into our cities and the little that is here provides me with immeasurable peace and solace. Imagine how devastating it would be if, everywhere you turned, you saw just another human creation. In those glowing trees, you might hear chirping birds. Some of the birds were genetically altered to eat some insect pest more efficiently (and the insects themselves are pests because they, too, were an earlier green-tech GMO project gone awry (think: killerbees and superweeds)). Other birds were genetically engineered to produce 'cooler' songs or to have brighter colours (because Kickstarter would be especially appreciative of projects with a 'cool' factor). Everywhere you look, you are reminded of human imperfection, egoism, and greed. Richard Louv has documented the importance of nature for the health, sociality, and intelligence of children. We all need nature. We need life's wild and complex freedom around us. Evolution created us as it created the rest of the biological world, and we must maintain environments where we can witness and appreciate the complex birthing process of the Earth. What little we have left, we need to keep.

In a recent interview, Evans, the project founder, stated that Glowing Plants was "a demonstration project to inspire people to get involved with the amateur DIY Bio movement." This might be the 15 most frightening words I've heard in a long time. Listen up! Ecosystems aren't made of Lego blocks that can be built and rebuilt at will. I suggest that any biotech tinkerer who does not understand the concepts of ecological stability, resiliency, redundancy, or have a basic understanding of how the rate of evolutionary change optimally balances novelty and development, should spend more time learning about the world around them. Leave the childish games inside the game room if you must play them at all.

What you can do.

Kickstarter cannot continue to facilitate the widespread contamination of ecosystems by biohackers. Kickstarter has helped scores of fledging artists and entrepreneurs get off the ground. For this they should be commended. But their support for this project is ill-conceived. Please sign the Avaaz petition immediately to demand that they reconsider providing a platform for projects seeking to engineer and distribute unregulated modified organisms. A project called "Kickstopper" is raising money to stop the release of these untested seeds - well worth it to throw a few bucks at them!! Send a personal email to Kickstarter too. Share the news with your friends.

And, of course, there is always Kickstarter's Facebook page...

It is also worth emailing the USDA's agency that deals with the release of transgenic organisms into the environment. Send a brief, informed and polite email to to ensure the most effective response.

We haven't got much time. Kickstarter will release the funds on June 7th unless we let them know loud and clear that this is an unacceptable risk!

JUNE 5th: BREAKING NEWS: Prestigious scientific journal, Nature, comes out with the following warning: "A controversial new project is seeking public donations to develop a glow-in-the-dark version of the thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) using genes from fireflies. If the effort succeeds, thousands of supporters will receive seeds to plant the hardy weed wherever they wish." (see full article). This has instigated some serious rhetorical back-peddling from the project founders.

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