Kickstarter is clamping down on genetically-modified organisms following the success of a project to genetically engineer glowing plants for use as additional lighting in people's homes. Earlier this week and without explanation, the crowdfunding website quietly altered its guidelines for project creators, introducing a new term that bans creators from giving away genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) as rewards to their online backers. "Projects cannot offer genetically modified organisms as a reward," the new language states. The prohibition is effective July 31st, meaning that the popular glow-in-the-dark plant project is safe, but that any future projects like it can't offer GMOs to their backers.
"Projects cannot offer genetically modified organisms as a reward."
When asked about the change by The Verge, the company provided only the following canned statement: "we aim to be as open as possible while protecting the health and creative spirit of Kickstarter for the long term." Yet the move comes just days after a project called "Glowing Plants" successfully raised nearly half-a-million dollars.
The project was launched by a team of trained synthetic biologists, who want to insert bioluminescence genes from bacteria and fireflies into several types of plans — arabidopsis and roses— to make them glow in the dark. Project backers who pledged $40 or more were promised packets of seeds of the final glowing plant products. Similar glowing plants have been created separately by other biologists going back to the 1980s. But the Kickstarter project creators are hopeful that their effort will go further, and that future iterations of their plants can replace some electric lighting altogether.
"For us, [Kickstarter’s move] doesn’t change anything," said Omri Amirav-Drory, one of the project’s creators, a biochemist who is also CEO of a biotech company Genome Compiler. "We already have the money, and we’re working on the project as we speak, transforming plants using DNA. But for me, I’m very sorry to see this, because it puts synthetic biology in the same category on Kickstarter as hate crimes and tobacco." Amirav-Drory said he had not been in touch with Kickstarter about the change in policy, but expressed puzzlement about it, because his glowing plant project had been featured repeatedly on Kickstater’s editor-curated project sections.
"it puts synthetic biology in the same category on Kickstarter as hate crimes and tobacco."
The creators maintain their project is legal under US law, and that the risk of cross-pollination is low because the main plant they’re engineering, arabidopsis, is not native to the US. However, they also say they won’t be able to send the seeds to countries in the European Union and other areas where GMO crops are widely curtailed. Meanwhile, Environmental advocates and some scientists outside of the project have expressed concerns that it may lead to a negative perception of synthetic biology, or set a worrisome precedent for unsupervised release of GMOs. One researcher recently told Nature that the plants were "frivolous."
As for Kickstarter, the website seems to be trying to insulate itself against critics of the glowing plants project and GMOs more generally. But as Amirav-Drory noted to The Verge, Kickstarter’s new stance may lead scientists like himself to choose other crowdfunding platforms for their projects going forward.
Carl Franzen contributed to this report.