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October 4, 2013

Glowing plants illuminate regulatory debate

(Continued)

A generation ago, the process of manipulating an organism's genes required millions of dollars in sophisticated equipment and years of trial and error. Now it can be done in a garage with secondhand parts ordered off the Internet in a few days. Thanks to advances in computational power, the cost of reading 1 million base pairs of DNA (the human genome has approximately 3 billion pairs) has fallen from upwards of $100,000 to a mere 6 cents.

That has allowed entrepreneurs to enter the field with minimal investment. The team, keeping their exact location a secret because of worries about activists potentially destroying their work, is starting its first experiments this month on hundreds of seedlings lined up on tables in their makeshift lab.

The team is not looking to reinvent the wheel. Working off previously published papers, they have decided to take six genes from a bioluminescent marine bacterium and insert it into seedlings of a small flowering plant that's known as Arabidopsis.

The process of creating the glowing plant, as the team describes it, is simple: They input the DNA sequences from the bacterium into a computer and a program modifies the DNA sequence to make it work in plants. The team then emails the file containing the sequence of letters (G, T, C, A) to a company in China, wires $8,000, and a few weeks later they get in the mail the DNA, synthesized by Chinese technicians. They then take the DNA and use a machine called a gene gun — because it's earliest version was a modified air pistol — to insert it into the plant.

The challenge, according to Evans, is trying to figure out how to make the plant brighter. Is it the gene expression? The oxygen? The amount of sunlight? Earlier experiments produced plants that were so dim the light could be seen only in completely blacked-out rooms.

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