Most of the time, when you read about something that has been genetically modified, it’s in reference to agriculture and food, and there’s a pretty strong sentiment in the green community about the undesirable effects of GMOs on the health of both humans and the ecosystem.
But there are many other uses for bioengineering that don’t involve ingestion or the need to grow them out in the fields in mass quantities, including this one, which would take advantage of the ability for bioluminescence in microbes, in order to provide light for us.
The Biobulb concept, which was picked as a finalist in a crowdfunding challenge by Popular Science on RocketHub, aims to create a stable and sustainable closed ecosystem in a jar, powered by microbes. A genetically engineered population of E. coli, with genes for bioluminescence added to them, will be supported by the ecosystem and glow in the dark.
“The Biobulb is essentially a closed ecosystem in a jar. It’s going to contain several different species of microorganisms, and each organism plays a role in the recycling of vital nutrients that each of the other microbes need to survive.” – Michael Zaiken
The team behind the Biobulb, Michael Zaiken, Alexandra Cohn, and AnaElise Beckman, all Frontier Fellows at the University of Wisconsin Madison, will be experimenting with different bioluminescence proteins to discover which ones have the best glowing effect in the E. coli, and which ones result in different colors.
One of the questions on the team’s pitch page asked how they would prevent the microbes from spreading into the natural environment (in the case of breakage), which would be undesirable. The answer from the team was that the strain of microbe they are using is a specialized lab strain, and would probably not survive outside the Biobulb: “It has had its genes for defense, offense, and mobility removed. It would also be putting a lot of its metabolic energy into trying to glow. Due to these factors it would be at a huge selective disadvantage against any wild strain of bacteria.”
If the Biobulb microbes could eventually be fully self-sustaining over long periods, and the lights could be produced on a commercial scale so they were affordable, it’s possible that even though they contain GMOs, they would be one of the greenest lights around. But the real goal, says the team, is not as a consumer product, but as an educational tool.
“Our goal isn’t to create a commercial product, but rather an artistic representation of science that will grasp people’s attention. We want to move beyond the stigma many times associated with synthetic biology and get people engaged in more questions about the real potentials of the field.” – AnaElise Beckman
What do you think? Is using genetically engineered organisms in industries and products other than agriculture or food an acceptable use of synthetic biology? Or are you opposed to it?
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