By TIFFANY RONEY
Light-emitting plants — ultimately, trees that can replace electric streetlamps and potted flowers bright enough for evening reading — are the goal of a project underway by a scientist with Abilene ties.
Kyle Taylor, son of Trent and Debbie Taylor, Abilene, collaborates with Antony Evans, a scientist slash marketer from Britain, and Omri Grory, a synthetic DNA developer from Israel. The project has been featured in The New York Times, Forbes Magazine, The Wall Street Journal and more.
“There’s just something quite simple and captivating about the idea of having a plant that glows,” Taylor said.
A self-proclaimed “bio-nerd,” Taylor said his unique task is in the project is to integrate and order synthetic DNA into the plants to make them glow. He said when he was studying molecular and cell biology at Stanford University he had no idea he would end up working to create glowing plants.
Though he referred to the project as a novelty, he said scientists have been experimenting with the possibility of glowing plants since the 1980s. Taylor himself has years of experience pursuing the creation of glowing plants. For his senior project at Abilene High School, he attempted to put glowing proteins from jellyfish into African violets.
Taylor said his current work and his senior project are similar in the sense that both projects aim to make a plant glow, but he said the projects differ in their means to that end. He said there are two different mechanisms by which scientists make something glow: one is to shine light on it and cause it to glow later, like many glow-in-the-dark items, and the other method is to insert something into the plant that causes it to shine without needing to store light energy from the sun or a blacklight.
“That’s what we’re trying to work on now, and it’s a little more challenging,” Taylor said. “The goal is that you would just have a plant that glows on its own, much like a firefly.”
A forest full of scientists
Shortly after earning his doctorate in December 2012, Taylor jumped into a community lab-space in Silicon Valley known as Biocurious. At Biocurious, hobbyists and PhD carriers alike join together in diverse projects, from bio-printing carrot stem cells to “playing around with zebra fish,” Taylor said.
“Think of it as, if you have a working shop that you could just let everyone into who’s been trained appropriately, but for biology, not for mechanics,” Taylor said. “This is a really cool way of doing research, because you’ve got a group of people who are invested and interested in what you’re doing, so engaging them and talking with them and communicating with them and showing them what’s happening is a really cool and interesting model of doing research.”
In addition to assisting other scientists with their projects – for example, he prepares cells for the scientists working on bio printing – Taylor teaches and mentors scientists at Biocurious who are new to the field.
“There are a lot of people who are really excited, really passionate about biology and biotechnology, but they don’t have a lot of the expertise,” Taylor said. “The last time they took a biology course was in high school. They’re interested about it, they’ve heard about I, they’re excited about it, but they don’t know what to do. So, I’m there.”
It was in the midst of his work at Biocurious that Taylor met Evans and Grory, and a conversation about glowing plants grew into their current project.
Harvesting a crop of funds
While many research projects garner grants to find funding, the Glowing Plants project is taking a “do it yourself” approach by inviting anyone interested to support the project through Kickstarter, an online funding platform for creative projects. Backers from the USA who give $40 or more will receive 50-100 seeds to grow a glowing plant at home, according to the project’s Kickstarter page.
Taylor said his team chose Kickstarter because government grants and industry funding tend to go toward projects with direct health benefits or applications to agriculture, while this project is more of a novelty.
“It’s a fairly straightforward idea that most people can wrap their heads around – glowing plants, that’s the basic idea – so we thought we’d try the Kickstarter campaign,” Taylor said.
As part of the campaign, Taylor writes regular updates for backers and other interested readers.
“My perhaps somewhat subversive goal is to, in some of those updates, teach people some things about biology in a fun and entertaining way,” Taylor said. “I am so incredibly grateful for the generosity of the backers to allow me to work on such a cool project with plants.”
Taylor: ‘it all started with a seed’
Taylor’s interest in biology goes back to age 8 when his parents planted milo in a row of crops.
“It seemed so fascinating and amazing that you could take this little seed, and then out of that seed comes this whole plant,” Taylor said. “It just made me curious and want to figure out what’s going on there.”
From that point, Taylor began studying horticulture through 4-H and FFA. His mother, Debbie Taylor, said his work with glowing plants seems in-line with the kind of thing she thought he would grow up to do because he has always been very science-minded.
“One thing that motivated me to go into plant biology research and biotechnology was – this may sound a little bit naïve, but – I wanted to help feed the world,” Taylor said.
Part of Kyle’s inspiration to use biotechnology to feed the world came from hearing Nobel Peace Prize Winner Norman Borlog speak about his plant-breeding efforts. Borlaug won the prize in 1970 for producing double yields of corn and wheat that helped prevent mass starvations in countries like India and Pakistan.
“That was a really watershed moment for me, about how these types of technologies could be used for broader problems,” Kyle said.
While his glowing plants may not directly save lives, Kyle said he hopes his work educates and inspires others to venture into the fields of synthetic biology, microbiology and biotechnology and find novel ways to fund their own research.
“There are a lot of challenges and problems out in the world, and I think biology and biotechnology could go a long ways in helping them or alleviating them, and maybe even solving them,” Kyle said. “By showing people what you can do with synthetic biology and microbiology, hopefully that kind of gets them thinking about, ‘How could I solve this problem? Could I solve it this way?’”
Visits to his roots
For the past several years, Kyle has planned his Christmas visits to Abilene to overlap with school days at McKinley Elementary so he can present a “rock talk.” His interest in rocks predates his passion for plants, as he started the geology project in 4-H at age 7.
Kyle said just thinking about giving the rock talk caused him to smile from ear to ear.
“The 3rd graders ask such cool and amazing questions,” Kyle said. “In a way, we’re all born natural scientists – curious about the world and kind of trying to figure it all out. Getting to reconnect with that childlike wonder and curiosity is a great thing.”