The latest update came quietly on Tuesday night. “We’re sorry to say that we have reached a significant transition point,” wrote the Glowing Plant project’s creator, Antony Evans. This “transition point” was more of an endpoint: The project had run out of money. The quest to genetically engineer a glow-in-the-dark plant was no more.
Four years ago, the Glowing Plant project raised nearly half a million dollars on Kickstarter, easily blowing past its initial ask of $65,000. Of course it did. The vision it presented was such potent fantasy. “What if,” Evans asked over swelling music in the pitch video, “we use trees to light our streets instead of street lamps?” What if you could get lighting without electricity? What if the natural world glowed like in Avatar?
This romantic vision so perfectly encapsulated the promises of synthetic biology, a field that treats the natural world as another system to be designed and engineered. In this case, synthetic biology became a possible solution to one of the world’s most pressing energy problems: electricity generation. Plus, it sounded really damn cool.
The Kickstarter campaign only promised a small, potted glowing plant to it backers, and I doubt many backers actually harbored illusions about trees lighting up the night sky soon. But backing the project was a small way to buy into a much grander vision.
“Lots of biotech startups fail. I think this one is maybe more disappointing for myself and others for what it seems to have represented,” says Todd Kuiken, a research scholar at North Carolina State University’s Genetic Engineering & Society Center, who also chipped into the project’s Kickstarter campaign. The glowing plants were one of the first synthetic biology projects to really capture the public’s imagination.
At a time when “genetically modified organism,” or GMO, is such a poisoned phrase, the project’s crowdfunding success seemed to suggest that a pervasive if vague distrust of genetic modification might be countered by the sense of wonder for a glowing plant. (As the Kickstarter campaign grew, though, environmental groups raised questions and the crowdfunding site later banned giving away genetically modified organisms.)
The team also encountered the hard realities of engineering even a small plant that glows. “We did not anticipate some of the unknown technical challenges that we would get into,” Evans told me. (Plenty of scientists at the time were skeptical of the project’s timeline, though.) Evans is an MBA with a background in mobile apps, though his two original cofounders, who have both since left the project, had backgrounds in synthetic biology.
To get the plant to glow well, the research team had to insert six genes. But they never could get all six in at once. At best, some plants glowed very dimly. (The photo above of the glowing plant is a long exposure, making it appear much brighter than it actually is.) Evans says that he realizes now trying to insert six genes into a complex organism like a plant—rather than single-celled bacteria or yeast—was premature.
That’s why TAXA, the company that Evans set up to work on glowing plants, eventually pivoted to creating genetically modified moss that smells like patchouli to subsidize continuing glowing-plant research. Moss is a simpler organism. They got the scented moss growing, but the last bunch was contaminated and could not be shipped to customers. Without the moss, there was no way to keep funding the company. That’s when Evans realized that glowing plants weren’t happening.
“I’m really afraid of disappointing that 16-year-old who saw this and imagined a bright wonderful future, of jading and disappointing people,” he says. Despite a few angry backers asking for a refund, most of the comments under the Kickstarter update so far have been supportive. The project had been providing regular, detailed updates on the difficulty of engineering the plants. The latest update was its 67th.
In the four years since Glowing Plant began, synthetic biology has caught the eye of investors. “Glowing Plant was iconic,” says Ryan Bethencourt, the program director at IndieBio, an accelerator for biology startups. “That was one the things that made me realize this was the time to start building up synthetic biology.” In the meantime, the technology of sequencing and synthesizing DNA has only gotten cheaper.
Recently, synthetic biology startups like Bolt Threads and Ginkgo Bioworks have raised tens of millions of dollars. Synthetic biology has the real potential to disrupt the vast networks of how we get things—clothes, food, energy—but these two companies also tap into a romantic vision about what nature is and could be. Bolt Threads trades in the allure of spider silk. It recently unveiled an $314 tie made of spider silk, produced in vats and spun by machine. Ginkgo Bioworks makes flavors and fragrances; it has flirted with the idea of making a perfume from resurrected Ice Age flowers.
Both companies also work with genetically engineered yeast—the simple, single-celled organisms that Glowing Plant overstepped.