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Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity

This article was first published on 9 May 2013.

I’ve made reference to Genome Compiler and the potential impact of synthetic biology in an earlier post.  The link in this article is actually to the “kickstarter” page for “Glowing Plants: Natural Lighting with no Electricity” and the video provides a great overview of the proposal.

I thought it worth going back to this though for a couple of reasons:

  • The Glowing Plants “kickstarter” project is not just a fun around the edges.  It’s a very serious demonstration of what can be done with synthetic biology and just how relatively cheaply and easily it can be carried out.  It’s led by extremely well-credentialed scientists and backed by support of some of the most visionary institutions and financiers on the planet.  And remember that this technology is still only in its infancy with enormous scope for accelerated reductions in the cost curve and improvements in the performance curve.  Moreover, Genome Compiler, the software used to reprogram the DNA of the plant, is available online for free.
  • Synthetic biology marks the transition of biology – the most organic of disciplines – into a digital technology.  That’s important because it suddenly allows the rules of digital technology and all of their implications for the shape of the cost and performance curves, the annihilation of space and time etc. to be applied to biology.
  • It also provides massive scope for industry convergence and enormous disruption.  Anyone associated with the value chain that currently delivers lighting – everyone from electricity providers to light bulb makers – should be watching what’s happening with this project.  My instinct tells me however that a conversation about glowing plants in the boardrooms of major electricity providers would likely be met with ridicule rather than a real sense of intrigue and vulnerability.  It’s an extremely serious matter though.  One of the reasons organisations get disrupted is that they define their industry and competitive landscape on the basis of the product they produce rather than the core functionality they provide.  If you are part of the existing value chain for providing people with light you need to understand that they only want electricity, light fixtures, light bulbs etc. as a means to an end.  The end they seek is light.  And, increasingly these days, they want it cheap and “green”.  It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in, you need to be absolutely focused on the core problem your customers are trying to solve and you should be watching what’s happening in the field of synthetic biology because it might just turn out that your customers can solve that problem using something radically different to the conventional architecture that your business is embedded in.

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