Could glow-in-the-dark plants replace streetlights?

Witness a luminescent transgenic tobacco plant containing the firefly luciferase gene. Can you read a novel by that light or what?
Witness a luminescent transgenic tobacco plant containing the firefly luciferase gene. Can you read a novel by that light or what?
© ScienceVU/Keith Wood/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis

Early in May 2013, the U.S. government ordered a Texas-based nonprofit to remove blueprints for a dangerous device from its Web site. The item? The Liberator, a working plastic gun banged off on a several-thousand-dollar, industrial 3-D printer. The blueprints were downloaded an estimated 100,000 times. They likely still exist on the Web [source: BBC].

We live in an age when "do-it-yourself" has taken on exciting and nerve-wracking connotations, from writing a killer app to building a DIY nuclear reactor [source: Clynes]. As cheap 3-D printing grows capable of ever-more complex tasks, we might soon fabricate our own toys, furnishings -- even household electronics [source: Dillow]. Plug in the Internet's deep and expansive knowledge base and the fiscal power of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, and you have a recipe for a transformed world.

But are we ready to release so many genies from so many bottles at once? Before you answer, consider that some of those bottles are labeled "bacteria" and "DNA," tools in the budding cottage industry of DIY biotechnology. So which is more dangerous: synthetic and genetically modified life, or a printable gun?

Such were the questions raised by environmental groups when synthetic biologist Omri Amirav-Drory, plant scientist Kyle Taylor and project leader Antony Evans began the Glowing Plants Kickstarter campaign to "create real glowing plants in a do-it-yourself biolab in California" [sources: Evans; Paramaguru; Pollack]. Like Public Broadcasting Service donors, Kickstarter campaign contributors receive pledge rewards, but these are no tote bags: Instead, anyone who kicks in $40 will receive seeds for growing their own glowing plants.

Harmless? Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, it amounts to the unregulated spreading of a genetically modified life-form.

As of June 5, Glowing Plants had amassed 7,858 backers and more than $451,207 in funding. Having blown past its initial $65,000 goal to grow radiant Arabidopsis thaliana -- a weedy mustard relative and favorite plant guinea pig -- it was fast approaching its $500,000 stretch goal. The research could one day lead to a host of lighting solutions that, according to Evans, would make a sizable dent in our carbon footprint [sources: Evans; Paramaguru; Pollack].

Evans and company are far from the only game in town. Researchers in Taiwan are looking into diffusing gold nanoparticles into tree leaves to make them both glow and photosynthesize, removing carbon from the air [sources: Beck; Nagano]. Closer to home, Alexander Krichevsky, who directed the Stony Brook University research that helped inspire and power Glowing Plants, has founded his own company, BioGlow, to market shining ornamental foliage [source: Pollack].

All of which leaves one glaring question: Will the plants even work? Will we soon read a book by rhododendron or drive a car by larch-light?