Michael Zaiken, Alexandra Cohn, and AnaElise Beckman wanted to teach kids about synthetic biology. But the University of Wisconsin-Madison students didn’t opt for a mere blackboard lecture. Instead, they decided to harvest bioluminescence genes from fireflies, transfer them to a non-pathogenic strain of E. coli, make a friendly ecosystem contained in a bulb for that E.coli–all to create a a glowing, bacteria-loaded biobulb ready to distribute to the masses.
The project, which is being developed through the university’s Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID) Frontier Fellows program, recently received more $3,000 worth of funding via crowdfunding site RocketHub. Now, the team is embarking on two development stages: First, they have to make the E. coli glow. Second, they have to capture it in a closed ecosystem. But most importantly, they have to clear Biobulb with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“They called us, actually, and said ‘We’ve heard about the Biobulb, here are our concerns,” Cohn says. “Specifically with concerns for our plans to distribute unregistered genetically modified biological materials,” Zaiken says.
The type of E. coli to be contained in the team’s Biobulb isn’t the kind that makes you sick, but still, the growing number of citizen science projects that involve synthetic biology are stirring a hot debate. Earlier this summer, when the Glowing Plant Project put its bioluminescence-infused plant seeds as rewards up on Kickstarter, the genetic engineers received more than seven times the amount of funding for which they had asked. But then Kickstarter clarified the rules: No giving away the genetically engineered life as a reward.
But part of the point of the Biobulb is to demonstrate that synthetic biology is generally used for good, the team explains. “People believe that genetic engineering is necessarily going to lead to something that’s dangerous or harmful,” Zaiken says. “There’s an argument to be made against Monsanto’s patent rules,” he continues. “But [GMOs] are things that have tremendous potential to help people.”
Unlike Monsanto’s GM corn, the goal of the Biobulb will be strictly non-commercial. Inspired by BioCorps, Sacramento State University’s biology education-oriented community service volunteers, the Biobulb creators want to distribute the Biobulb to classrooms, where kids can interact with GMOs firsthand. Zaiken, Cohn, and Beckman also say they’re looking into making the bulb more responsive to heat and light, so that if you were to put your hand on it, for example, it would glow.
If bioluminescent E. coli makes you nervous, or you’re wondering what might happen if the E. coli escape their ecosystem, the team argues that the bacteria would be wiped out almost immediately. According to Biobulb’s creators, the proteins that make the bacteria glow require a lot of energy from the organisms, reducing their ability to defend themselves or even reproduce. “And that’s something we’ll have to prove to the EPA before we send it out to people,” Cohn explains.
“We’re glad people are asking about it,” Beckman says. “That’s the point of our project–to educate people.”
The EPA did not respond for comment, but we’ll update if we hear more on how regulating the glowing bacteria will proceed.