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October 4, 2013

Glowing plants illuminate regulatory debate

Hunkered down in a converted shipping container stationed in a San Francisco parking lot, three young entrepreneurs are tinkering with the DNA of ordinary plants in the hopes of being able to mass produce a variety that glows in the dark.

If all goes well, their start-up company will begin mailing out the first batch of seeds next spring to the 8,000 donors across the country who helped them raise nearly $500,000 in a phenomenally successful online fundraising campaign through Kickstarter.

The distribution of an estimated 600,000 seeds would be, by far, the largest release of a synthetically engineered organism to the general public. The recipients will be able to plant the seeds in any standard flower pot and, with enough light and water, grow a glowing version of a small winter annual with oval-shaped leaves that is related to mustard.

It is an event that supporters are looking forward to with giddy excitement but also one that has sparked worry in Washington about whether existing laws and statutes are adequate if something goes wrong and the seeds upset the balance of the environment.

The team is confident they can grow a plant that gives off light — scientists have been able to create glowing plants as far back as in the 1980s. What they don't know yet is how bright they can make it. They plan to announce Friday that they have successfully created an early prototype of glowing seeds.

For Antony Evans and his colleagues, the experiment represents the first step toward the ultimate goal of creating sustainable natural lighting. They imagine a world where light bulbs are filled with DNA from fireflies and jellyfish and bioluminescent trees replace streetlights.

"Our project is a demonstration of what's possible," said Evans, 33, who has an MBA and is the Glowing Plant Project's manager.

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