[ExI] Fwd: [biomed] [DIYbio] Re: Glowing Plant kickstarter - helkp us reach our final DIYbio stretch goal!

Bryan Bishop kanzure at gmail.com
Fri Jun 7 15:55:12 UTC 2013

From: Eugen Leitl <eugen at leitl.org>
Date: Fri, Jun 7, 2013 at 6:37 AM
Subject: [biomed] [DIYbio] Re: Glowing Plant kickstarter - helkp us
reach our final DIYbio stretch goal!
To: cypherpunks at al-qaeda.net, biomed at postbiota.org

----- Forwarded message from Patrik D'haeseleer <patrikd at gmail.com> -----

Date: Thu, 6 Jun 2013 17:11:43 -0700 (PDT)
From: Patrik D'haeseleer <patrikd at gmail.com>
To: diybio at googlegroups.com
Subject: [DIYbio] Re: Glowing Plant kickstarter - helkp us reach our
final DIYbio stretch goal!
Reply-To: diybio at googlegroups.com

*“Is this Legal”? *

“Is this Legal?” is probably the #1 questions people ask us when they hear
about the Glowing Plant project (well, after “Can I have one?”, of course).
The short answer is “Yes”. But the long answer is far more interesting…

Regulatory oversight in the US over genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
is covered by an alphabet soup of laws and agencies. Different rules apply
when you are dealing with a GMO food crop such as soy (covered by the Food
and Drug Agency - FDA), a microbe, an animal, or anything that has been
engineered using a plant pathogen. I would hesitate to call this a
patchwork quilt of regulations, because a patchwork quilt isn’t supposed to
have any holes in it, and these regulations definitely do: big, ragged,
oddly shaped holes.

Most plant genetic engineering historically has been done by taking
advantage of the plant pathogen Agrobacterium tumefaciens. You may have
seen Agrobacterium at work if you’ve seen a tree with a large outgrowth on
its trunk. Agrobacterium is a bacterium (duh) that infects plants. During
infection, it literally injects some of its own DNA into the plant,
subverting its host’s machinery to make a nice little home for the
bacteria. Plant genetic engineers have been using that trick to their own
advantage, by engineering Agrobacterium to inject whatever genes they want
to insert into the plant instead. However, the US Department of Agriculture
has been understandably cautious about releasing any plant that has been
infected by this pathogen, especially an engineered strain of Agrobacterium
that could potentially infect other plants in the environment. In fact,
this has historically been one of the primary justifications the USDA has
used for regulating GMO plants.

Now, it turns out that Agrobacterium isn’t the only tool genetic engineers
have at their disposal to get genes into plants. In 1987, Klein and Sanford
discovered that you can literally fire tiny bullets loaded with DNA into
cells using an air gun. And when I say tiny, I do mean tiny: the usual
ammunition for this “gene gun” are gold nanoparticles that are 1/100’th the
width of a human hair. Each gold particle is coated with strands of DNA
coding for the genes that we want to the inside the cell. The use of gold
allows the bullets to be much smaller than the size of the cell, yet heavy
enough to carry enough momentum to pierce the tough plant cell wall. This
is the same reason that real bullets are make out of lead (or the even
heavier depleted uranium) except that the gold particles will be inert once
inside the cell.

[Image: “Give us your money, and the plant gets it!”]

The use of this gene gun technology to circumvent USDA’s regulations on
non-food plants did not escape notice of the 800 pound gorilla in the field
of plant engineering. Monsanto, in collaboration with Scotts Miracle-Gro,
has been developing a bluegrass strain (the lawn variety, not the banjo
variety) that was engineered to be resistant to their favorite herbicide
glyphosate (aka Roundup). And because nobody but your dog eats lawn grass
it’s not covered by FDA regulations. And because they used gene gun
technology instead of our friend Agrobacterium, it’s not covered by USDA’s
plant-pathogen-based regulations. Scotts/Monsanto saw a huge gap in GMO
regulations, and waltzed right through it! Mind you, there were still
plenty of voices saying that they should never have gotten away with this.
After all, there are plenty of weed grasses that their bluegrass could
potentially outcross with. And by inserting the herbicide resistance genes,
they’ve given this grass an evolutionary advantage wherever there are
traces of Roundup in the environment. But get away with it they did: USDA
ruled that their bluegrass did not pose a risk to become an agricultural
pest, and that was that.

Now, compare that Roundup Ready bluegrass with our little Glowing Plant:
Arabidopsis is not a very hardy plant, and since it is self-pollinating it
is highly unlikely to outcross with more vigorously growing weeds to begin
with (unlike grasses). And the genes we’re inserting into its genome will
drain a small amount of its energy to produce light, so it will likely do
slightly worse than its unmodified cousins in the environment, rather than
giving it a fitness advantage by making it resistant to herbicides. Other
than that (and a multi-billion dollar company with thousands of lawyers),
the two are fairly analogous.

So where Monsanto waltzed through the regulatory gap, we will be happy to
sneak through after it, and give you something you really want: not just
another water and herbicide guzzling lawn, but a glowing garden of
bioluminescent plants.

Mind you, I have nothing against rational, sensible regulation of
genetically modified organisms. This is after all a very powerful
technology. We also regulate car manufacturers, because we prefer our cars
not to fall apart on the roadway. But if billion dollar companies can get
away with bringing a herbicide resistant grass on the market without any
regulatory oversight, then surely our ragtag band of biohackers should be
allowed to create a little glowing plant as well?

So – that was the long answer: yes, what we’re doing is legal. We have
talked to the relevant regulatory agencies, and Monsanto already set the
precedent with their Roundup Ready grass. There is still a small
possibility that our Glowing Plant project might get shut down by one of
the alphabet soup agencies, but then they’d need to reverse their decision
on Monsanto as well. And if a bunch of DIYbio amateurs is able to insert
some more rational thought into the national debate around GMO regulation,
then, personally, I wouldn’t consider that a bad outcome either…

*Patrik D’haeseleer is a scientific advisor of the Glowing Plant project,
and community projects coordinator at BioCurious, neither of which is in
any way related or funded by his day job at the Lawrence Livermore National
Laboratory and the Joint BioEnergy Institute. The views presented here are
his own, and do not represent those of the Glowing Plant project,
BioCurious, LLNL, or JBEI.

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----- End forwarded message -----
Eugen* Leitl <a href="http://leitl.org">leitl</a> http://leitl.org
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