What Synthetic Biology Is Doing to Our Houseplants

A genetically modified moss that pumps out patchouli fragrance is in the works.

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Jul 22 2016, 12:00pm

Image: Bill Ohl/Flickr

The houseplants of tomorrow could glow fluorescent green, scent our homes with a patchouli fragrance, and mop hazardous gases from the air—all part of a future in which synthetic biology makes our everyday lives easier and better.

That's the vision of Bay Area-based TAXA Biotechnologies, which has synthesized a moss that produces the earthy scent of patchouli. Fragrant Moss, which could ship as soon as December, might soon take the place of the Air Wick canister on the back of your toilet, according to CEO Antony Evans, who has an MA in mathematics from the University of Cambridge and handles the company's business side. Prior to working in synthetic biology, he launched the Virtual Nurse symptom-checking mobile app, in partnership with Harvard Medical School.

As for Fragrant Moss, "we see this as a replacement for a product that's not very ecologically friendly," Evans told me in an interview. "Fragrances are currently made in synthetic chemistry labs. That's not carbon neutral, nor is shipping the product across the Pacific very ecologically useful."

Colonies of Physcomitrella patens during TAXA's early experiments. Image: TAXA Biotechnologies

Many air fresheners are made with formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, and other toxic chemicals, according to the David Suzuki Foundation.

TAXA's Fragrant Moss was created by inserting software-generated DNA sequences into the cells of an emerald green, spreading earthmoss, called Physcomitrella patens, which is often used in studies of plant development. It's considered a model organism for genetic engineering and evolutionary studies, because of how easily its DNA can be altered.

Though patchouli is the only scent that's been inserted into the moss so far, more are on the way. "We're working on more fresh, fruity, floral, citrusy fragrances," said Evans.

Of course, nature already provides plenty of pleasing scents, chemical-free, in a variety of plants—there's a reason people have been putting flowers (or potpourri) around their homes for centuries. But Evens estimated that Fragrant Moss could last for years, whereas flowers wilt in days, and that it would be easier to care for than a flowering plant, too. The moss TAXA used thrives in moist conditions and would require watering once a week, as well as plenty of shade.

One potential packaging design is a ceramic planter, similar to Chia Pet.

The company is crowdfunding through Wefunder to raise $200,000 for production and distribution of the plant on a commercial scale. So far TAXA has only made a nickel-sized piece of the finished product, but now that the bioengineering side of things has been more or less perfected, it should be easy to increase that exponentially—once funding is in place, Evans said.

Two potential packaging designs for Fragrant Moss. Image: TAXA Biotechnologies

The last technical barrier to producing Fragrant Moss was the removal of an herbicide-resistant gene, which the team achieved in late May. Evans said he wanted the gene removed to avoid the risk of an herbicide-resistant plant contaminating the wild population.

"I find it hard to think of something that would go really wrong with our moss," he said, adding that if the fragrant strain made it into the wild, the mutation would soon disappear because it offers no evolutionary advantage.

TAXA's work has been met with backlash from the environmental movement. A previous project, to create a glowing houseplant, saw Kickstarter ban any campaign that rewards donors with a genetically modified organism, in 2013. Donors to Glowing Plant would have received the plant's seeds, along with a kit for genetically engineering their own glowing plant at home.

TAXA is still working on perfecting the glowing plant, though a few prototypes have shipped. Using the home kit is simple enough a layman could do it, Evans said.

Scientists and environmental groups have expressed concern about the lack of oversight surrounding the field of synthetic biology, including projects like Glowing Plant and Fragrant Moss, and the risk these organisms might pose if released into the environment.

Ottawa-based conservation organization, ETC Group, launched a campaign against Glowing Plant, which it called a "Kickstopper."

For the time being, DIY synthetic biology is in the regulatory Wild West. Anyone with the equipment and technical know-how is allowed to make whatever genetic modifications they like, something that is becoming easier and cheaper with the proliferation of home kits.

Bringing a product to market is more complex, with plants, animals and microorganisms all regulated by different governmental bodies. In the US, as long as a genetically engineered plant poses no a pathogen risk, no regulatory approval is required, Evans said.

He believes that the opposition to synthetic biology products like Fragrant Moss is misguided. Environmental groups and the organic movement have a vested financial interest in opposing synthetic biology, he argued.

"Genetic engineering is one of the most powerful [technologies] we've developed as the human race, and needs to be distributed," he told me. "[It] can be used in good and bad ways, and if you don't democratize it, if you don't make it available to everybody, then the powerful will abuse it."

"We want to show that this technology isn't just for big mega-corporations and that [its] benefits should be available to all."

A fragrant-smelling moss, to Evans, is a small step toward that. He said that the next step for TAXA is to genetically engineer a plant that can mop up toxic gases commonly found in the home, like formaldehyde and benzene.

Evans believes that synthetic biology is on the cusp of a revolution similar to computing 40 years ago.

"We're still in the mainframe era, but people are becoming aware that there's soon going to be a desktop. I would say the biotech industry is somewhere in the '70s, but before the arrival of the Apple," he said.

"What we hope is, in a few years' time, people in college are able to engineer their own biological organism and ultimately create all kinds of wonderful things, with all kinds of useful functions."