Will People Actually Buy Color Changing, Biohacked Flowers?

One company is betting that you'll want to buy genetically modified organisms simply because they look pretty.

Sep 18 2014, 8:25pm

In a couple years, if you're at the florist and are trying to decide between red roses or yellow roses, you might have the choice to, well, not choose: Synthetic biologists are working on making flowers that change colors throughout the day, coordinated with the plant's internal circadian rhythm.

It's a project that's reminiscent of the glow-in-the-dark plants that biohackers have created in the lab, except the scientists working on it say that they hope to create a product that the layperson can inherently understand and will want to buy at their local flower shop. It's synthetic bio for your mom—or for people who might be a bit freaked out by synthetic bio in general.

"It's more accessible, a little less science fiction," Keira Havens, CEO of Revolution Bio, the company developing the flowers, told me. "We're hoping folks who aren't just science nerds and tech enthusiasts will be engaged by it as well."

Nikolai Braun in the lab. Image: Revolution Bio

So, in that spirit, Havens and her colleague, Nikolai Braun, have chosen to create petunias that change color every 12 hours. Rather than plucking a gene from a glow-in-the-dark bacteria or some other creature with a desirable trait, the team simply has to use a gene from another species of petunia. 

If you didn't realize that the flowers are genetically engineered, you probably wouldn't see them and immediately think of them as "mutants." Which is the point.

In that sense, it might be a little less scary to the anti-GMO crowd: Botanists have been crossbreeding and hybridizing plants for centuries—Havens and Braun are doing it in a laboratory, with a bit of circadian trickery, of course.

"They turn off certain sets of genes at a certain time of day, then turn them on at another time of day," Braun said. "It's kind of like with photosynthesis, there are certain genes that are switched on in the daytime when the light is shining, and then there's other genes that save energy at night."

Image: Revolution Bio

By linking the genes that give a plant its color to this schedule, the team says it can make petunias that change from pink to purple and back again.

In that sense, it's a bit of a new frontier for synthetic biology: While most projects we've heard about thus far are focused on creating some revolutionary product to create new drugs or new sources of biofuel or a product you can't otherwise get, the goal here is to simply make something that looks pretty, for people who already like buying flowers. The team is quick to point out that the glow-in-the-dark plants use a genus of plant (arabidopsis) that isn't popular among those who buy flowers.

"We chose it because there's already an established market," Braun said. "There's an established market already and, in comparison with the glowing plant, well there's little interest in growing that as an ornamental."

So, while the science might not be completely groundbreaking at this point, and while it's not going to solve our energy crisis, Revolution Bio's project will be an interesting test. Are people willing to buy genetically modified organisms simply because they look cool? Will your corner florist sell them? 

The answers to these questions could say a lot about how we feel about this sort of technology writ large. If reaction is positive, it's a potential new avenue for synthetic biology startups to head down. For its part, Revolution Bio says it will get started on roses and doing some other cosmetic things to flowers.

Unfortunately, we won't find out for a while—the team is planning on starting a Kickstarter to sell the product in early November, and color-changing petunia seeds probably won't be available for at least a year.