Glowing Plant

Updates on the Glowing Plant and synthetic biology news

PBS Newshour - what is biohacking?

I am writing to ask for your support for a field trial that is currently under assessment and public comment with the USDA. The goal is to ensure the scientific evidence is represented and to get a fair balance of comments. As I’m writing this, there are only negative comments, including a 14-page document by GeneWatch, the anti-GM group, which includes a lot of false information. GeneWatch is driving a negative comment ‘blitz’ based on fear of ‘unnatural’ technology and there are no voices representing the science side of the story. Without the voices of other scientists, public comment is skewed entirely toward anti-GM. What concerns me is that beyond a dislike of genetic modifications in the marketplace, anti-GM groups are mobilizing to prevent the scientific investigations themselves. GeneWatch has systematically opposed any genetic technology, including the artemisinin project. But the tide is turning toward science-based policy making and your voice can help.

This is where you can help by posting a quick comment before the deadline of Sept 29: http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=APHIS-2014-0056-0001

Federal Register about field trial: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/brs/fedregister/BRS_20140828b.pdf

Project Background

The project targets the world’s most significant agricultural pest for brassicas (canola, cabbage, broccoli) – the diamondback moth (DBM). This is a collaboration between Cornell University and Oxitec Ltd who developed the genetically engineered (GE) strain of DBM, which is designed to reduce DBM pest populations. We have applied to APHIS to conduct controlled field experiments on this moth strain.

This GE moth was developed using the same principle as the sterile insect technique (SIT), which involves release of radiation-sterilized insects to mate with their wild counterparts, thereby reducing reproduction in the wild population. SIT has been used safely since the1960’s successfully control such pests as the Screw Worm. Check out Wikipedia for the fascinating story http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sterile_insect_technique

A key difference is that the GE technology allows for SIT-type control without the use of radiation that can make the sterile insects less able to mate with native insects in the wild. These GE moths are only able to survive as a colony in the presence of an antidote (tetracycline) that is provided for them in their diet in the lab. Before release, these caterpillars are fed a diet without the antidote, so that only males survive. The male-only release means that they are more eager to find wild females, and without access to the antidote in the lab, they cannot persist in the wild. Even if the antidote was found in the environment (implausible), the persistence of the strain in the field is not possible. These GE moths have a genetic color marker to monitor them in the lab and outdoors, so can easily be distinguished from wild type moths. The marker works because an inserted gene produces Red Fluorescent Protein, so the engineered moth fluoresces red when viewed under a specialized light.

Benefits and Broader Impact

There is a need for new methods of agricultural pest control. Insecticides are the main control method, but these insecticides kill a wide variety of insects and animals and wild moths readily develop resistance to these insecticides, threatening both the environment and brassica production by farmers. Greenhouse trials at Cornell have already shown that GE technology offers an efficient method of controlling DBM and, because the technology is self-limiting, it is designed to be environmentally benign. Brassica production is an important part of US agriculture – just last year the US planted out 1.7 million acres of canola, 130,000 acres of broccoli, 63,000 acres of cabbage, and 36,000 acres of cauliflower, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service. There is a clear need to evaluate and test new tools for controlling the most significant brassica pest.

The Planned Trial

The trial proposes that engineering male DBM moths be released in field cages first, then in an open field about 12 acres in size, along with planted cabbage, on Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experimental Station in Geneva, New York. A study is planned to evaluate the ability of these male GE moths to mate with wild females in these cages, and to test the limits of their ability to survive and disperse in the field. The experiments will provide the necessary information on the biology of these GE male moths in the field to evaluate the strain’s safety and potential for use in pest control.

Safety

Only GE males will be released because they can’t reproduce. When they mate with wild females, the female offspring do not survive without the antidote and so they cannot reproduce either. Our previous field investigations have also shown that DBM can’t overwinter in the harsh climate of upstate NY where the experiments will be conducted. It is also worth noting that the same approach has been reviewed by USDA previously in an Environmental Impact Statement which concluded that it was the environmentally preferable alternative.

Further items you might point to in a comment

the need for scientific field evaluation of new tools
regulatory processes need to be science and evidence based
need for new methods to help reduce dependency on pesticides
new tool against insecticide resistance in this moth which is limiting current control options
this technology is species specific – does not affect non target species such as beneficial insects
integrates with existing farm practices
no apparent safety concerns – non-toxic, non allergenic proteins have been used
self limiting gene technology – it disappears from the environment after releases cease
built-in fluorescent marker for monitoring
related technology deemed safe in OX513A (Aedes aegypti mosquito) in Brazil

If you know of anyone else who may be interested, please feel free to forward this note tand ask them to comment before Sept 29: http://www.regulations.gov/#!documentDetail;D=APHIS-2014-0056-0001

Thanks for reading this long email. Science-based decision-making takes time, but it’s better than blind slogans.

Time lapse photos of glowing bacteria

Monsanto, Under Attack for GMOs, Has a New Defender

We’ve been accepted by Y Combinator!

We have some extra news to share with you this month, we’ve been accepted by Y Combinator as part of this summer’s batch of startups and will present our plants at Demo Day next Tuesday. We are one of the first ever biotech companies they have accepted into their program and of course this would never have happened without your amazing support.

Why did we join the program?

We started working on Glowing Plants because we have a long term vision to bring genetically engineered organisms to the masses and to develop our plants to the level where they are bright enough to be used for broader lighting applications. Y Combinator is the most widely known and successful accelerator program in the world, and are the best people to help us realize that vision.

Serendipitously at around that time Y Combinator announced their ‘breakthrough technologies’ request for proposals so we applied and were accepted. One of the benefits for you as backers is that we are now going to be able to ship earlier than we were otherwise planning, we will now have funds to ship to you both the first early prototype (which we’ve been showing at the demos in our lab and which we plan to ship later this year), as well as version 2.0 which will come when we have improved the luminosity (estimated to ship a year later) to a brighter level.

So why is Y Combinator, traditionally a software accelerator, working with us?

In our Kickstarter campaign, we talked about how the Glowing Plant was a symbol for the coming synthetic biology revolution. Y Combinator is investing in the space for many of the reasons we are so optimistic about what’s going to be possible with that revolution. Here are the key ones:

1. Cost of launching a biotech startup is falling faster than software and has reached the cost level where Y Combinator started investing in 2004: This is driven by:

  • Availability of on-demand bench space (eg QB3, Biosciences Laboratories, Biocurious, StartX):
  • Smaller, more nimble teams, powered by outsourcing, eg: software eats labwork Transcriptic, Emerald, Synthego, Science Exchange
  • Falling costs of inputs: Exponential fall in costs of reading and writing DNA, Increased affordability of automation/robotics, Open source protocols and libraries of parts
2. Technology is driving down the time to product launch: 3. Poised for hyper-growth and scalability: Like software you make once, then copying/scaling is virtually free

4. New forms of capital, like crowdfunding and accelerators, enable startups to fund the development of prototypes

5. Scientists see increasing value in becoming entrepreneurs, mirroring the rise of developers who became successful entrepreneurs in the early 2000’s. Startups are becoming more attractive than traditional academic jobs because:

  • Increasing time to tenure
  • Reduced availability of grant funding, coupled with increased time that must be spent on applications
  • Wider education of key skills required, eg accelerators and university bio incubators
6. Technologies which were developed for pharma/agriculture can now be applied to other markets with much lighter regulatory barriers such as industrial and consumer applications

7. New capabilities are enabled by big data and the computer revolution. Genomics, proteomics, etc. (“’omics”) has created a world where “biology can be turned into data” and biological systems can be represented as data systems

It’s been really interesting and valuable going through the YC process. We will write a longer update on what we’ve learned from YC in the future once we have some more perspective and things quieten down post Demo Day, for now it’s back to working on the plants and getting ready to present next week. As usual let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.

The Glowing Plant team

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