“Is this Legal?”
“Is this legal?” is probably the #1 question 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 Administration [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 has historically 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 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 (USDA) 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” is gold nanoparticles that are 1/100th the width of a human hair. Each gold particle is coated with strands of DNA coding for the genes we want 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 made out of lead (or the even heavier depleted uranium) except that the gold particles will be inert once inside the cell.
The use of this gene-gun technology to circumvent the USDA’s regulations on non-food plants did not escape the 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 (a.k.a. Roundup). Because nobody but your dog eats lawn grass, it’s not covered by FDA regulations, and since 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: the 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). Also, rather than giving it a fitness advantage by making it resistant to herbicides, 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. Other than that (and the fact that Monsanto is a multibillion 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 an herbicide-resistant grass to 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 are 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.