You may have heard of Kickstarter -- the darling crowdfunding site where artists, designers, moviemakers, and others pitch pet projects to an online funder audience. Kickstarter may have just taken on a new and unwelcome role -- as the one-stop shop for risky biotech companies looking to execute an end run around regulation.
Generally Kickstarter projects promote such innocuous products as comic books, and sensibly, Kickstarter even has its own ethical limits on what it will host: Guns, drugs, and porn are forbidden for obvious reasons. Rather more mysteriously, the selling of sunglasses is also deemed unethical. But as reported this week three biohackers from California have hijacked the Kickstarter machinery for something far more controversial than sunglasses. They have made Kickstarter the conduit for a nationwide release of untested, unregulated and unmonitored bioengineered organisms by mounting a Kickstarter funding project to use Synthetic Biology to engineer glow-in-the-dark plants.
Synthetic biology is a new and exploding field of extreme genetic engineering techniques. It makes the sort of genetic tinkering used for GMO soybeans look quaint. Computer programs are harnessed to design and print out novel artificial sequences of DNA on a machine called a DNA synthesizer. This synthetic DNA is then engineered into a host organism to do unusual things.
Controversy dogs the field because of the safety risks attendant on such novel genetic interventions, as well as bioweapons risks and social impacts. Billions of dollars of corporate money is flowing into the technology from the likes of Monsanto, Du Pont, BP, Shell, Chevron, Exxon, Dow. Even the Kickstarter biohackers have their own private biotech startup -- this is not kickstarter's usual field of struggling artists. Last year 111 organizations called for a moratorium on synthetic biology, as did several countries at meetings of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. As with GMO crops, there is a growing fight over the future of synthetic biology.
Making a glow in the dark plant amounts to a quirky gimmick -- hardly the cutting edge of syn bio. But what's really driving Kickstarter success for the glowing plant geeks is a seedy offer: For $40 the syn bio hackers promise to mail all U.S. donors up to 100 bioengineered seeds to release at will into backyards or beyond. To date, almost 5,000 backers have stumped up the cash for seeds , which means up to 500,000 engineered synthetic biology seeds may be posted randomly to all corners of the U.S.A. This amounts to a nationwide unmonitored release of these novel glowing organisms. And here's the kicker in the Kickstarter: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has said that it does not need to assess, regulate, or monitor those glowtesque organisms. This is because they have elected to use a genetic engineering technique falling outside of government regulation. In effect, the biohackers could make all manner of weird and worrying organisms for widespread release and the government is apparently powerless to stop them.
For those of us who have been watching synthetic biology for some time this is doubly worrying. Never mind that Arabidopsis is weedy and can outcross. This isn't just normal genetic engineering. While claim and counterclaim trade back and forth in debates over syn bio, one point of tentative agreement has so far been a healthy respect for unknowable ecological and safety consequences of these techniques.
Unlike GMOs, which used naturally-sourced DNA sequences, synthetic biology trucks in DNA sequences invented on a computer. It's unclear how to asses the real world-impact of those sequences on both the organism and its ecological context.To date there has yet to be any deliberate environmental release of an avowedly "synthetic biology" organism. All projects remain contained in labs or production vats. One after another bioethics commission or weighty expert group has advised "utmost precaution," "prudent vigilance," and other sensible and sobering cautions. In 2009, The U.S. Presidents Bioethics Commission pointed out that:
"At this early stage of development, the potential for harm through the inadvertent environmental release of organisms or other bioactive materials produced by synthetic biology requires safeguards and monitoring." A sentiment echoed in a decision from the UN Convention on Biological Diversity which urged countries to apply the precautionary approach "to the field release of synthetic life, cell, or genome into the environment."
Yet here it is -- probably the first ever deliberate environmental release of a synthetic organism (or rather 400,000 of them) and not a whisper of precaution in sight. Of course, the biohackers claim that everything they are doing will be safe and the plants won't turn into weeds -- but then they would say that. That's why oversight and regulation is so important. Bizarrely the only entity to assess this project with the power to veto it is the team of young Brooklynites at Kickstarter HQ. And it seems they are happy to kickstart a new era of synthetic biology pollution -- so long as the glowing plants don't come with sunglasses.
The long-term implication is that Kickstarter's motto of "bringing creativity to life" just took on a bizarre new twist in meaning. Once the glowing plant biohackers have blazed a trail, we can expect many more synthetic biology projects to start heading off down the Kickstarter route -- especially if the glowing plant guys really do succeed in a widespread environmental release that evades regulatory scrutiny.
Part of the Syn Bio dream is to engineer life forms for general release as if they were living apps -- bacteria that make biofuel, yeast that make fragrances, algae that pump out industrial oils and lubricants. With a nod from Kickstarter and a wink from the U.S. government, we could see a snowballing app store of syn bio startups lining up on Kickstarter to offer mail-order unregulated engineered organisms. That would making a mockery of "precaution" and "vigilance" and could potentially make a mess of nature too.