At the end of April 2013, ETC Group learned that three biohackers from Singularity University in California had mounted a project on the popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter. It was a plan to carry out the worlds first environmental release of an avowedly Synthetic Biology organism - a glow-in-the dark arabidopsis plant. Shockingly the 'Glowing Plants' kickstarter project promised to mail up to 100 bioengineered seeds to anyone from the United States who gave them $40 online . To date over 4000 people expect to receive syn bio seeds in the post. The seeds, which they said would likely grow into 'glowing plants' (after all, ‘biology is complicated,’ admit the masterminds) would be the viable and reproducing products of ‘Synthetic Biology’ - A field that has never had a deliberate release into the environment before. Even more shockingly they claim that the US Government had agreed not to regulate, assess or monitor this widespread random and nation-wide release of synthetic organisms.
In the last few years Synthetic Biology has been gaining increasing visibility in press and policy circles. Ther have been a parade of pronouncements from expert groups, - including from the President’s bioethics commission, diplomats of the UN biodiversity convention, an EU expert group, the insurance industry etc. To date all have agreed that no synthetic organisms should yet be released into the environment without 'precaution,' 'prudent vigilance,' regulation, monitoring and other sober and sensible safeguards. Yet now the US government appears ready to avert its eyes . Kickstarter turns out to be the only entity to subject the world first Syn Bio pollution project to any kind of review; sort of. While Kickstarter's own ethical guidelines exclude the posting of projects involving 'sunglasses' or 'bath products,' promoting the world’s first uncontrolled, unmonitored and unregulated release of synthetic organisms apparently didn’t raise any red flags at Kickstarter HQ. ETC Group and Friends of the Earth have written to Kickstarter to request they cancel the project (see letter here). We have also written to the US Department of Agriculture (see letter here) and to the 'Glowing Plants' Kickstarter project creators (see letter here).
What’s the solution for a world that crazy? A little Kickstarter jujitsu (kick butt?)? If the biohackers can have a Kickstarter campaign to release their glowtesque synthetic biology plants, then maybe a few sensible folks could mount their own crowd-sourced initiative to stuff the genetically engineered genie back in the bottle – or at least ensure it never makes it out of the glowing plant lab. Enter the counter-Kickstarter campaign – the Kickstopper.
The biggest risk is that we do nothing and let the synthetic biologists move ahead with releasing hundreds of thousands of synbio seeds, setting an eerily glowing precedent that many other commercial biotech firms and informal biohackers alike will follow - using kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites to do an end-run around oversight of risky technologies.
We are e calling on friends and allies and all who are opposed to widepread release of synthetic organisms to help us kick back and put a stop to this syn bio pollution project. If you are interested to help fund the kickstopper initiative please visit:
and to keep in touch with teh campaign do fill in the web form below
Jump to: Kickstopper on IndieGogo
Further Updates and Links:
30th April 2013 - Letter to Kickstarter requesting them to cancel the Synthetic Biology 'Glowing Plants' project.
2nd May 2013 - Letter to Synthetic Biology 'Glowing Plants'project.
7th May 2013 - Response from 'Glowing Plants' project
7th May 2013 - New York Times: A Dream of Trees Aglow at Night
10th June 2013 - Mother Jones: Glowing Plants: Awesome Kickstarter or Creepy Biotech