Written by Caroline Coatney
This summer, the website GMO Answers was launched by the Council for Biotechnology Information in the hopes of making “information about GMOs in food and agriculture easier to access and understand.” As seen in past and present discussions about GMOs—the Kaua’i County Bill #2491 debate comes to mind—misinformation and fear mongering hinders productive conversation. GMO Answers is a great educational resource and I am glad it was created. However, I believe people also need to develop a personal relationship with genetic engineering and interact with it if the “GMO fright” pandemic is to be fully addressed.
Imagine if biotechnology was a common, friendly, hands-on experience for anyone interested. Imagine if learning biotechnology skills and practicing them was just as common as learning survival skills for a girl scout troop. Imagine if grandmas could receive homemade GMOs from their grandchildren. Imagine if Grandma could pick up the hobby of DIY biology along with knitting.
This may sound silly and “too sci-fi.” But if people had “everyday” experiences with biotechnology, I believe there would be less fear and more curiosity about GMOs and other biotech products. I also believe that such commonplace, educational experiences could be possible in the near future.
The “garage biology” movement is trying to make this possible. Groups such as BioCurious, Genspace, and DIYbio strive to make biotechnology accessible by organizing workshops and classes as well as making lab space and equipment available for group members to pursue their own projects. People from all parts of the biology education spectrum participate in these community biology groups. Unfortunately, not all cities have community biology groups yet. However, soon, DIY biology experiences could be delivered right to people’s front door. Literally.
The group Glowing Plant is on the way to making this a reality. After a successful Kickstarter campaign this spring, Glowing Plant raised enough funds to begin creating a glow-in-the-dark plant that could replace a reading lamp. People who donated $40 or more to the Kickstarter campaign will receive seeds for the glowing plant when it is successfully developed. Through its Etsy store, Glowing Plant is also selling a Glowing Plant Maker Kit. The kit is completely separate from the donation awards on Glow Plant’s Kickstarter page, so anyone can purchase it. Nearly everything needed to transfer the glow gene into an Arabidopsis plant is included in the kit. The only items that need to be bought separately are bleach, ethanol, and dry ice, all of which can be bought from your local grocery store. You can place your order now, but kits won’t be available for shipping until May 2014.
When Glowing Plant’s Kickstarter campaign was nearing its deadline in early June, there was quite an Internet frenzy about sending genetically engineered seeds far and wide with no regulatory oversight. People were calling for Kickstarter to terminate the Glowing Plant project and others were incredulous that GMO regulations had such a gaping loophole. However, setting regulation issues aside, I’d like to say the following.
This is an amazing concept. Buying a transformation kit online from Etsy! In the near future, I might be able to browse craft how-to kits and biotech how-to kits side by side in the DIY section of Etsy.
Allowing people to relate to biotechnology in a personal, informal, and fun way is a powerful idea and, I believe, a potential game-changer when it comes to public conversations about GMOs and other biotechnologies. Removing biotech from its perceived black box and putting it instead on people’s kitchen counters allows everyone to explore and learn. With the continued work of the garage biology groups mentioned above and the availability of biotech how-to kits, I believe future biotech discussions may take a turn for the best.
If you have any experiences with the community biology groups mentioned or other DIY biology opportunities, please share!
Written by Guest Expert
Caroline Coatney is a plant breeder with experience in science communication and science policy. She has a Masters degree in plant biology from the University of Georgia.
I like these ideas. It’s great way to guide the conversation in a positive direction by reaching out to the kids. I hope some of these DIY experiments find their way into grade school science classes.
Good information to have handy … and now I’ll need to order the Glowing Plant kit as well! I’d also like to give a shoutout to the Seattle DIY group hivebio.org. They are a crowd funded effort (Microryza).
Thanks, Bill, for sharing information about the Seattle HiveBio group!
Funny, I was thinking about something like this the other day. When Kevin Folta was looking for ideas for a good science fair project, I was wondering if we could come up with a kit sort of thing for high school bio labs.
And I thought we could raise some funds by crowdsourcing–but not with Kickstarter.
I was thinking we could have kids use the test strips to look for GMO content of foods they eat, and also with some standard samples. We could build some kits with the various strips, with some sample ground up seeds (including controls), etc. But I haven’t thought through the design much.
It could be added that they don’t ship kits outside the US, right? And wanting to play with a Glowing Plant kit is probably not enough to get a H1B-visa. Seriously in the afterword to the second edition of Biopunk, Marcus Wohlsen write a little about it being less bureaucracy in America, making DIY-biology easier there than in Europe.
A very interesting idea and I I can definitely appreciate Mary/Kevin’s thoughts about learning about biotechnology through a science project.
We at OSF actually get regular requests from students of all ages seeing if we have apples available for science projects they’re doing, or just for information on how we introduce the browning trait. I wish we could help them out by giving them apples (obviously we can’t as they aren’t deregulated yet) since it’s always so much more powerful seeing the difference right in front of you, rather than reading about it.
We see the same impact even with other growers and with consumers. They think it’s so cool when they have an Arctic Granny in one hand and a conventional Granny Smith in the other after we smack them together and wait a few minutes…
I think I have an idea on this. What about Plant CSI? A kit comes with negative controls, positive controls, and then some number of unknown samples. Groups are assigned the unknowns.
Then there are stories–something like: Mr. Smith claims that his community garden plot corn has been contaminated by Ms. Jones virus-resistant squash pollen. Does this seem to be the case? Should Mr. Smith worry about eating his corn?
And they have to do some research on the plants, test the unknown samples, and present the outcome of the case. Organized into a presentation something like a poster session flow (abstract, methods, results, conclusion)–could be on paper or on slides/verbal presentations.
Another group gets a case of Mrs. Smith-Jones. She claims that her “organic” sugar is really GMO beet sugar and causing her to have allergic reactions. They have to test for the presence of the protein, and determine if her reaction is likely due to GMO beets. You guys can figure this one out.
Lesson plans, resource guide. Companion Khan-academy-esque videos. Etc.
Do the kids get bonus points for titling their report “Alas Smith & Jones?” (no people from the US, I did not misspell this, go look it up, you can thank me later).
The company I used to work with did educational kits involving DNA and protein stuff, so it would not be so far fetched to do the above, probably however too controvertial…
MaryM, the Plant CSI idea sounds great! I think it would also be cool to have kids bring in an item from their school lunch or from their fridge at home and test it to see if it is a GMO.
Also, a while ago, I read about some group (maybe Genspace?) holding a workshop where people created glow-in-the-dark yogurt. Something like that could be fun too. Maybe glow-in-the-dark beer for an adult class/workshop?
“But if people had ‘everyday’ experiences with biotechnology, I believe there would be less fear and more curiosity about GMOs and other biotech products.”
Absolutely. This exact reasoning was a major motivation for the Genomikon genetic assembly kit we’ve been working on. No crowdfunding (yet), but a beta version is in the hands of users. We’ve done extensive work with Genspace and other DIYbio groups, but we’d love to connect with others in this space.
Thanks, Doug, for your comment and for sharing information about Genomikon. I saw on the news page for Genomikon that the first beta kits were shipped this past week. Very exciting!
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