My short bio: We are academic scientists working in the field of synthetic biology, and we left all that behind to start a company, move to Ireland, and make flowers that change color throughout the day. We're linking the plant's circadian clock to pigment modifying proteins, so that the flower will cycle between colors - red to blue and back again.

We're at the very beginning stages of this process and we welcome your questions on everything - academia, entrepreneurship, science, what the heck were we thinking, all of it. Nikolai will be answering mountain, cat, and ice cream based questions; Keira will take garden, book, and swing-dancing inquiries.

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Break turned into sleep - back to answering all your questions now!

Comments: 175 • Responses: 61  • Date: 

mramaad9 karma


RevBio2 karma

Nikolai here. I think back to George Mallory's famous quote-- when asked why he would climb Mount Everest, he replied "Because it's there."

Keira and I saw an interesting project that we could tackle with our scientific training, and saw a market opportunity, so we went for it. The alternative was working at "some kind of job" and spending our evenings watching TV and drinking beer.

Matt_bagels-3 karma

Why color changing flowers though? You could've put your energy into anything else, using that logic, just because you can. I can go jump off a bridge just because I can, but that doesn't mean it's something I should do.

Sometimes_Lies2 karma

Not OP, but why not color changing flowers? By the logic you're using, why go to the moon? They could've put their energy into anything else, but didn't. No one went to the moon to build cellphones, but yet cellphones are only possible because of a successful space program.

Maybe the research will reveal something very important that we never would've found before this. Maybe they'll have a practical use no one will see coming.

Just off the top of my head: Plants on your roof/walls that are white when it's hot and black when it's cold could very well be a novel form of increasing energy efficiency in a home. That alone could make this research worthwhile.

RevBio1 karma

Thank you! Why not is such a better question to ask.

We're okay with making a consumer product at this point, but you're right, if it can be tweaked to include more utility, then we'll probably include that in the pipeline. I like the black and white idea - I hope green roofs catch on anyway, maybe we can help make that happen.

RevBio1 karma

There are two questions here I think, 1) why did you pick this particular project to do and 2) Why are you wasting your time on a project with no "real" benefit.

1) As far as this project goes, it is technically feasible and commercially attractive. Petunias are very well studied, and basic research accomplished over the last 20-30 years has given us a number of tools to work for our project. The control mechanism, i.e. the promoter that expresses genes at different concentrations based on the circadian clock, is identified and characterized, and the proteins involved in flower color have also already been identified and characterized. Without that basic research, we wouldn't be able to move forward on this project. With it, we have a very specific technical scope that we can execute on and we will know whether or not our proposal has a chance of working in a few well designed experiments.

2) As I mentioned in another post, this is relatively "useless" science. We already know we can combine promoters and genes - not breaking any ground there. These particular genetic pieces haven't been combined before, so I suppose that's a little new, but still, why does anyone care whether we can express color at a particular time of day? The short answer is - They probably don't.

But it will look pretty cool. Because this isn't a food and it's not a necessity, people will have the opportunity to encounter a GMO on their own terms for the first time. They'll be able to interact with it, watch it over time, buy it if they like it, leave it on the shelf if they don't. Right now, people don't have that choice, and because they feel it's forced on them, 'GMO' is automatically bad. It's just a tool though - I hope this project lets people see the potential of GM technology instead.

pighalf7 karma

Once the flower is cut, will it still be able to change colors? If so, for how long?

currentchris5 karma


RevBio2 karma

Haha, hopefully it has a little time before that happens!

RevBio1 karma

We think so. Plant parts stay alive after you pick them - I'm sure you've had a flower grow some roots in water or a potato start to sprout after it spend a long time in the pantry. The reason we think this will work is that people have looked at the maintenance of the circadian clock in individual plant cells that were extracted from a plant.

Here's the full paper, but what you're really looking at is Figure 1 where extracted cells maintain their circadian clock over six days. If that holds true for whole plants then our flowers should keep changing color after they're picked.

sagan9997 karma

How about a mood-flower? (like a mood ring)

i_am_a_mole4 karma

It would be cool if the pigment color was related to temperature.

RevBio5 karma

That might actually be possible! Just replied to the comment above you.

RevBio3 karma

I like the way you think! There are SO MANY possibilities here, but in order to make them reality we have to tease out the parts we need to make them work. The reason we picked the circadian clock is because there is some solid research into that system and we know which pieces we can use.

So, right now we don't have a way for a plant to sense mood - there's no protein or gene I can use to convey a mood from you to the plant. Instead what we might be able to do is look into temperature sensitive promoters and genetic elements so that when it is hot the flower is one color, and when it is cold it's another.

setfaeserstostun3 karma

What species of flowers are easier to work with in terms of color changes and why is this? Explain some of the science that makes some species more susceptible than others.

RevBio1 karma

We're starting with petunias because the genetic basis of color in petunia (and almost everything else in petunia) has been very thoroughly studied for the last 30 years. Petunias are ideal model organisms in the lab -easy to transform, relatively quick to regenerate, and a breeze to propagate once they're grown. For our particular project they also have some well characterized circadian clock components. Petunias are pollinated by moths so they release a lot of scent at dusk - this is run by the circadian clock and we can connect these parts with our pigment modifying protein

Now the pigments that make up colors are known as anthocyanins (there are other ones, but these form the large majority of colors). The biosynthetic pathways that make anthocyanins are really strongly conserved, and every plant has a circadian clock, so what we learn from this project can be applied to other plants down the road. However, not all plants are as easily transformed as petunias are, so that will pose some technical challenges. Hope that answers your question!

dahemmi3 karma

Do you also get frustrated by the general naivity surrounding genetic modification, and have you come up with any explanations that have set protesters minds at ease?

RevBio1 karma

It can be frustrating, but it is still important to have the conversations anyway. For every really vocal person who is only interested in their agenda there are many other people lurking in the background waiting to see what is said and make their own decisions. There's no magic argument you can make to put someone's mind at ease, but by treating their concerns with respect you can at least open a dialogue.

smchemique2 karma

Can you make glow in the dark flowers? That would be great. I am alluding to :

RevBio4 karma

That's a pretty cool project. I've spoken with Dr. Krichevsky of Bioglow and can remember when the original paper came out. They are transforming the chloroplast genome rather than the plant cell genome. Lots of advantages when you do that-- there are lots of chloroplasts in a cell, and lots of genome copies in a chloroplast. That means you get enormous expression levels of the parts necessary to make a plant glow.

We of course talked about this here at RevBio, but decided not to pursue it. We could do it. All the parts and methods to get it done are no secret, but there are enough people out there with glowing plant aspirations, that it didn't seem to be a good opportunity for us.

currentchris2 karma


RevBio10 karma

That's my favorite part about this project - It's just pretty. Who wouldn't want a flower that changed color? Imagine it hanging out in your planter, and in the morning it's red, in the evening it's blue. Or maybe it goes from pink to purple if you like those colors better! Or we end up engineering it so a white rim around the flower appears at noon.

We're working in petunias, which already come in a crazy variety of color - they've been hybridized over and over again for a very long time and the bees seem to do okay with them.

os851-9 karma

My one question is why are you wasting time changing the color of flowers? I seriously don't get the time wasted on this project. Go figure out why the chemical process of why photosynthesis works so well and apply that to photoelectronics.

RevBio6 karma

Sure, there are really important problems that people are tackling with this technology. But what is it that you hear in the news and see on your facebook feed? You see people talking about how GM crops are going to stop evolution, or they'll poison us, or they'll give us all cancer. The important problems like better crops that are drought and flood tolerant, are fungus and pest resistant, those can't be brought out into the market until people accept the technology fully.

This project is a 'waste of time' scientifically in that there isn't going to be any new basic research completed. but it is going to have a huge impact on the public perception of what a GMO is and can be.

100SqFt2 karma

Thank you for this. I, myself, would love nothing more than to create GE livestock to fix some of the environmental, disease, and feed efficiency issues surrounding meat and dairy production but so far all GE animals that I know of have been blocked from market by public rejection.

RevBio0 karma

The only GMO animal I have heard of that is close to approval is GMO Salmon. Their modification is for increased aquaculture productivity. Unaltered salmon stop their growth in the winter months regardless of how much you feed them, the GMO salmon (if fed sufficiently) will continue to grow in the winter, so a fish farmer will be able to harvest mature-sized salmon sooner.
There are of course problems with aquaculture practices, but our planet has a lot of mouths to feed, and this is a clever way of getting more productivity out of a finite area.

100SqFt2 karma

Other projects, like the enviropig, never got close to market approval. The pig was modified to produce a bacterial enzyme allowing it to digest and absorb the phosphorus in grain, reducing the need to supplement the pig's feed and reducing the levels of the phosphorus in fecal waste. The idea was that this would reduce the water pollution caused by pig farms but the public was far too against it.

Maybe I should just make GE puppies. Everybody loves puppies.

RevBio0 karma

Someone beat you to it! Also, pigs, monkeys, cats, & more...

currentchris-1 karma


RevBio1 karma

Well I just said 'huge impact' not necessarily that it would be good or bad. You're right, we'll just have to see what people think of the project! It's nice that this is a luxury item, so you don't have to buy it if you don't want to. As to your next points:

1) It's just the two of us here at Revolution Bio. We were academics, decided to be entrepreneurs, and are now living in a moldy apartment because we are poor and all our money is going to science.

2) GM is the name of a technology - genetic modification - and GMOs are organisms modified by that technology. By itself, the technology is not evil. I agree with you, I dislike the patent system, and I think biotechnology patents need to be overhauled, but a crappy legal system and poor financial incentives does not make the technology evil.

os851-1 karma

Exactly why I asked why you are spending time figuring out something trivial and has no direct application to the scientific community or any community besides commerce.

And yes it is what I hear and read about in the news. G.enetically M.odified O.rganism crops are doing nothing but causing people to be forced into buying seeds every year, since they fucking self terminate, oh and you might as well buy up all the round-up you can afford, since the terminating seeds are "resistant" to Round-Up at the genetic level. As in a scientist spliced genetic code to prevent cellular die-off from the chemicals in round-up. In no way is this good for anyone, let alone the average store consumer that has no idea they are eating a GMO crop, because of the FCC's loose labeling structure.

They won't be accepted because they aren't real crops, crops come back every year from seed from the plant, not some fucking company like MONSANTO.

I seem to remember this thing called evolution, that takes care of half the issues you mention. I am fully against GM crops, and the BLIGHT they are having on our planet.

Do you enjoy knowing you have Round-up permanently in your DNA code now, because I am not.

Lying to the consumers about what GM crops really are is a line of fucking horse shit. Public perception hasn't changed because the industry that supports it is so blatantly corrupt.

RevBio2 karma

I might be misunderstanding you - your first line seems to suggest that if we were doing something "important" (improving photosynthesis say), this would be okay to do. But then you say that Monsanto has done terrible things by making important changes to food crops that allow farmers to produce more food on the same amount of land with less pesticide than before. What is an important thing to do?

There's no terminator gene in GMO seeds. And, as a side note, if you were to take any of the conventionally bred F1 hybrids and save their seed, those would not grow true the next year. That's a function of genetics, not GMO.

Round up is the moelcule glyphosate - it can't be inserted in your DNA. Glyphosate inhibits an enzyme in plants known as ESPSP which would normally be involved in aromatic amino acid synthesis. Round-up resistance is a new version of that protein which is not inhibited by glyphosate.

Evolution takes a long long time, and we're going to be facing a lot of pressure on the food supply from people and diseases. Traditional breeding methods are powerful and useful, but I think we need every tool we have.

dahemmi5 karma

It's strange that other professions are allowed to have projects that aren't changing the world in some amazing way, but people seem to think science isn't permitted to create something purely for entertainment or to be creative. Music, film and television don't achieve anything great and are creative works to attempt to bring a bit of joy, pleasure or entertainment to people; and these professions are highly valued. This is what I see as the desired outcome here, plus there's boundless scientific learning that comes from a project like this that can transfer across to all sorts of other projects that you might deem more worthy.

You're also overlooking the intrigue and sense of wonderment that a creation like this flower could bring to children and students; increasing their fascination and interest in science and spawning a desire to learn.

RevBio4 karma

Thank you! We see no reason why wonder can't be as much a part of science as it is in art. They're both ways of exploring the world.

dahemmi3 karma

My background is in biology and I have done a bit of teaching as well. It amazed me how students could hate science so much when it's so much about discovering exciting, mind blowing things. It wasn't until I began to see that everything was book learning and exams- never an exciting, creative journey of discovery. The very first time I used my light microscope in uni and saw red blood cells for myself blew me away and was amazing- not to mention cytoplasmic streaming and blastocysts! Exciting, fun projects like yours should be encouraged because they embrace passion and a desire for discovery alongside the learning you will gain. To me, the sense of awe and curiosity are the fundamental reasons the study of science exists.

RevBio2 karma

Hooray! Thank you for your support & for inspiring the next generation of scientists. We're actually making a game for people to "design their own flower" using an app and the anthocyanin pathway. I'll try to remember this & send it your way once it's up and running!

celestinea-1 karma

Please answer this question about the bees and every other pollinator. Have you studied the effect of your project on the ecosystem? If you have, I'd love to hear about your methodologies and results.

RevBio4 karma

Nikolai here: I am a beekeeper and feel as if I am more attuned to bee issues than your average joe. We've done no studies on bees, and won't. We are creating a petunia that is modified with parts from petunia. There are already so many varieties of plants with different color flowers out there that are developed through traditional breeding. Should those plants also require a bee study done before releasing them? They are essentially identical to what we are creating.

RevBio5 karma

Also, a bit unrelated, but there is evidence that the European Honeybee colony collapse disorder is linked to pesticide use. recent paper been in the news a bit lately. Pretty interesting

lolzergrush-1 karma

Aside from Honeybee colony collapse (wtf that came out of left field) there are innumerable unforeseen consequences that can result from good intentions. Just as a hypothetical (and this is by no means exhaustive) what if the color-changing flower has a significant reproductive advantage in the wild that you didn't foresee, and replaces the natural petunias over the next century? And what if this has an impact on the temporal patterns of pollinators throughout the petunia's natural range?

And this is just one tiny example. There are hundreds of thousands of other possible scenarios that I can't think of off the top of my head. Any time you make alterations at the genetic level that can't be achieved through biological reproduction (i.e. crossbreeding) there are immeasurable side affects that you can't control for.

Millions of people in Bangladesh are drinking arsenic-contaminated water because of some well-meaning organizations installing wells. Rodent-borne populations in Vietnam are endemic because of a bounty that French Indochina put on rat tails led to locals farming rats. Bioaccumulation of dioxins worldwide is the result of past decades' attempts to make safer industrial coolants. Nearly every environmental problem in existence from DDT, to global warming, to pesticide resistance, to anything else you could name, is the result of unforeseen consequences by well-intentioned people. I'm sure that they were just as confident as you are now that no harm could ever come from their work.

You're used to the environment of academia, I understand that, and therein you have an often elaborate review process before beginning work and an established peer-reviewed system to publish your work long before it ever goes into widespread practice. You're probably so accustomed to it that it became second nature and half the time you didn't even notice it was there. While you're operating inside academia that's fine, but you've gone off on your own - while that's admirable, there's very little oversight and you seem to be acting as your own reviewers.

As a responsible scientist, you should acknowledge that you don't know what you don't know. Reading through this thread and your responses to anyone who has brought up the concern, you obviously do not.

RevBio3 karma

We don't know what we don't know, that's a good point! But I would also argue that that we do know what we know and therefore we can do some educated risk assessment of our activities.

As I mentioned in this reply we actually spent time considering the ramifications of this project in social, scientific, and environmental contexts. To your specific points, we are not providing an essential service to people, we are not adding a chemical with unknown properties into the environment (these color molecules are the same as the ones in any other plant). Instead, we are engineering this project in a plant which has been hybridized for a very long time to create a very wide range of flower colors and shapes. Do you feel that every hybrid petunia that comes on the market should also have a study done on pollinator impact?

lolzergrush0 karma

As I mentioned in this reply we actually spent time considering the ramifications of this project in social, scientific, and environmental contexts.

You've considered. That's the problem. You have no review board and there's no worldwide commission on reviewing genetically modified organisms. As I said earlier, you're making changes that you couldn't achieve through biological reproduction so this is no longer about hybrid petunias, and you know as well as I do that analyzing the full genome of the plant is well beyond the scope of your work so it's not possible to know the full extent of the changes you make.

The overall tone that you're taking sounds like the exact same tone that Paul Müller would have taken, if someone had approached him when he was developing DDT and tried to warn him about unforeseen consequences.

RevBio2 karma

I think this is where we fundamentally disagree. I view GM technology as more precise and controlled than traditional breeding - I know exactly what piece of DNA I am adding to the organism, and I can find out exactly where it was inserted. Traditional breeding mixes everything together and can sometimes introduce undesirable traits along with the desireable one.

The USDA has actually funded a sequencing project looking explicitly at the number of changes to the genome introduced by genetic engineering technologies, traditional plant development techniques like chemical mutagenesis or radiation, and cross breeding. I'm looking forward to the results!

lolzergrush1 karma

I know exactly what piece of DNA I am adding to the organism, and I can find out exactly where it was inserted.

It's never just a "piece" of DNA, we still don't fully understand how genetic information is transcribed and translated to manifest itself in the organism's physiology and the ways it interacts with its environment. New research is published every single day that illuminates our understanding of genetics.

So am I to understand you correctly then, that you have no oversight, no external review process by someone who doesn't have an inherent conflict of interest to oversee your work and review the environmental implications, before your product is allowed to propagate in the environment? This is very unsettling to me and it should bother you as well, the fact that the only person who decides what is right is the person who has invested heavily in his company and has a vested interest in its commercial success.

I doubt very much that the first person to develop a means to mass-produce DDT and create a company around it could have been trusted to make unbiased decisions about its environmental impacts. Had the literature been available 80 years ago to see that it would have unforeseen consequences on certain predator species' reproduction through a complex series of bioaccumulation, the guy who just invested his life savings to create a company that manufactures DDT and stands to profit millions couldn't possibly be expected to give it a fair and unbiased hearing. I'm sure he would have responded with all of the benefits of DDT, its importance to public health and disease control, the war effort, etc., and probably had a spokesperson standing by with dozens of lab reports indicating that it's perfectly safe on mice. Why would he consider it any other way? This thing is going to make him millions and benefit so many people, what could possibly go wrong??

This is what is meant by "conflict of interest". Your position as founder of this company is an inherent conflict of interest, just as his was. To be clear, it's not an assault on your character, nor an implication that you would consciously ignore indications that you might produce a phenotype with detrimental impacts, but human nature is human nature and this is the reason people are subjected to oversight. I can understand the reasons why you left academia to pursue this with the freedom of the private sector, but your responses seem to indicate that you just don't want to be bothered to consider potentially harmful impacts because you can do no wrong.

Also, not sure why you bring up the USDA, other than as a PR deflection. The USDA funds tens of thousands of agricultural projects. That's what the USDA does, in a nutshell: it funds projects. If it did absolutely nothing else whatsoever, it would always draw funding and give it to projects related to agriculture. That is its purpose. While beneficial to food production and other industries, projects under the USDA are not primarily motivated by understand the environmental impacts of genetically engineered species propagating in the wild. If the USEPA or your country's equivalent were providing some oversight on a study of the potential environmental impacts of genetically modifying that species' physiology that governs reproductive success, that would be different. As it stands, you seem very resistant to any form of oversight whatsoever and I sure as hell hope I'm not looking back at this 50 years from now and thinking "Damn if only he'd listened."

RevBio1 karma

You've emphasized the I in my above statements - I wrote them as a description of what I view as benefits to genetic engineering. I have access to information about all the changes that have been made. It sounds like you are reading this as an ego statement instead - I can do this and you should trust my judgement. That was not the intent. I understand your concerns about the judgement of any person about their own enterprise, and I hope the following addresses some of those concerns.

There is of course external review. We have to submit our work to the USDA’s regulatory body, APHIS, and they will be reviewing our plan, the parts used, the proposed use of the transgenic plant, and assessing the risk accordingly. They’ll be determining whether or not the plant is released. As part of that process, they have provided guidelines as to how to construct a transgenic organism – we’ll be following those guidelines entirely. I’m not sure where I gave you the impression that we were going rogue, but I apologize for that.

I mention the USDA project because it is explicitly designed to quantify differences introduced into the genome by genetic engineering and differences introduced by cross-breeding and traditional mutagenesis procedures. This experiment speaks directly to your concerns about the 'unintended consequences' of genetic engineering and I thought you’d be interested in hearing about it.

I’m not sure how to address your concerns re “It's never just a "piece" of DNA.” It sounds like you feel that the collective body of scientific knowledge we have on transcription and translation is unreliable. Is that the case? If so, I would have to disagree. While we are learning new things about the complexity of genetic regulation and phenotype-genotype relationships, the fundamentals of gene regulation have held up over time. A promoter will express a gene. A terminator will stop transcription. A ribosome will take RNA to protein. We’ve build our project around parts that have 20+ years of literature supporting their functions – I feel comfortable considering these as parts with known functions.

glideonthrough2 karma

Can you share with us what mechanisms you have in place to prevent your plants from, for lack of a better phrase, spreading out into the wild population of petunia?

RevBio4 karma

Sure - we picked petunia specifically because it is a highly hybridized annual that has been used in home gardens for a hundred years. Whatever contamination of wild-type petunia has occurred over that time will be indicative of the gene-flow we can expect from our hybrid, and in this case, that's zero.

The_Spot0 karma

Can this be ensured in crucifer crops? Color changing cole slaw anyone?

RevBio2 karma

From a purely technical perspective, there's no reason why not. all plants have a circadian clock and crucifers already come in a variety of colors, so we know the machinery for color is there.

It might not be the best use of our time though, I'd bet the stress of being chopped up for food would wreak havoc on the circadian clock so your coleslaw probably wouldn't change colors nicely. And of course, there are enormous financial and perception hurdles to introducing GM foods that we just can't deal with as a small company. We're able to pursue this project in flowers because people are already interested in novel flower colors and design - they are way less interested in GM food.

smchemique2 karma

Who do you hire? What qualifications I should have to apply?

RevBio1 karma

We're a small start-up fighting for funding right now, so we aren't hiring anybody unfortunately!

Right now Revolution Bioengineering is myself, Keira and my co-founder Nikolai. We worked in a lab together for 4 years before deciding to follow this crazy idea and start up a company. He has his PhD and I have my masters, so we have the technical side covered for now. What we could really use help with is all of the rest of it, accounting, finances, web sites, social media, etc. We're learning all of it all at once at this business accelerator we're a part of and we won't be able to do it all forever.

If you're asking how you can get involved in this field, I'd suggest IGEM if you're an undergraduate, and possibly the DIYbio world if you're out of university.

dahemmi1 karma

Ah, I was going to ask how you were funding this. Cool and interesting science projects are not always the ones we get to do because at the end of the day it's all about how much money a company can make when it comes to types of research that gets invested in.

RevBio1 karma

Exactly. We were lucky to find an accelerator interested in synthetic biology and very early stage projects. It's not a lot of funding but it's enough to get us started and hopefully enough for us to develop a solid crowdfunding campaign down the road.

kimbabninja2 karma

When do you expect these flowers to be available to the general public and is there a price range you have in mind?

RevBio3 karma

Plant biology takes a really long time - the fastest plant work we can do still takes about three months for one full experiment (transformation, growing the plant, testing). That plant is a little weed, so it won't look very nice in the garden. Petunias are still pretty fast (for plants) but we're talking about a 5-6 month turn around between transformation and testing.

Our goal is to have a prototype in a year and be able to share it with the public in two. It won't be as cheap as a normal petunia, but we are going to try to make it as affordable as possible. As we learn more we may end up being able to offer 'designer' plants where you pay us an exorbitant amount of money and we make you your very own flower with colors you picked.

McGruffin2 karma

thanks for the reply, it sounds like you did think about it then.

Hey how specific can you alter the colors and times that they change? Could a buyer request yellow at breakfast time, red for lunch, and blue for dinner, or any other combination?

How does a plant know what time it is and when to change color, especially if it was indoors and under artificial light?

RevBio2 karma

No problem! We have been doing our best to consider this project from every angle.

Right now we're looking at a simple morning-evening color change, but there are proteins that express differently at every point in the circadian clock so it's possible that we could get fancier with the color & the timing. That will take more research though, and be a ways down the road.

Circadian clocks are really interesting, they're actually defined as having a 24 hr cycle independent of external factors. Its a series of proteins which all interact with one another in kind of a perpetual motion machine. I'm afraid I don't have a good simple picture or explanation for you, we'll have to make one of those. Here's a lab that's working on plant circadian clocks with a nice video of little arabidopsis plants that glow in time with the clock.

MyOldGaffer2 karma

What factors are preventing humans from engineering grass that only grows to a specific height, cutting landscaping costs?

RevBio-1 karma

Keira: Science doesn't understand nearly as much about plants as it does about other organisms like bacteria and yeast, and probably even mice. They're not quite as flashy - it's not a model organism for human diseases, which of course attract a lot of money, they take a really long time to study which increases the cost of the experiment, it costs 100M to bring a food-plant to market if you've done any engineering, and if it's a non-food plant that you've engineered people will complain long and loudly that you're destroying the natural order of things. There's not a whole lot of incentive to work on plants!

So in short, we don't know enough about what controls height to make that possible yet.

Nikolai: I'm not an expert in that field (so to speak), but there are so many varieties of grass that already exist that don't grow very tall at all. Just take a walk out to your nearby golf course-- They have some super-low growing grasses on the greens, and those are all naturally occurring or traditionally bred varieties.
I think those aren't as good for a lawn because they are high maintenance. Lots of water, in particular. It's okay if you have a landscape crew or if having your lawn look awesome is what you do in your free time, but for the rest of us that just mow the lawn when we get around to it, or water the lawn when it starts looking brown, it doesn't make much sense to have.

MatthewBetts2 karma

Hey there /r/science is doing a Science AMA Series. You should go to the mods and ask to do one. Now my question, what applications do you believe that your work/research could contribute to in any field of science?

RevBio4 karma

Oh great! We're really trying to push the outreach side of this since it's easy to get isolated in the lab.

As to what our project will contribute to science in general: This project is a fun one. We're building something beautiful using advanced technologies, and it's something that everyone can recognize as beautiful. A color changing flower is something amazing and inspiring - we hope it will be the first GMO that people will actually want to have. I'll go a step further and say that this project will demonstrate the potential of this technology in a way that hasn't been done before and as a result change the way people thing about GMOs. The whole field will benefit. Maybe when that happens we'll get to use the bulletproof strawberry /u/kevinfolta has developed.

dahemmi1 karma

Do you have a website or anything ongoing that is public where I can get updates on the project?

RevBio1 karma

For sure! Here's the website. Sign up for the newsletter on the front page!

MatthewBetts1 karma

Huh I see, thanks for the answer!

RevBio1 karma

You're welcome! If you have other ideas of groups that might be interested in hearing about us, definitely let us know.

noargumenthere-3 karma


RevBio0 karma

This is actually a good deal for us - It's a relatively straightforward project, we're getting to meet a lot of folks we wouldn't have normally interacted with, and we are getting some great business experience in the process. If the public really and truly hates it, they won't buy it and we'll fail, end of story. However, we haven't seen that sort of overwhelming negative reaction yet and we're hopefully that people will be intrigued.

I think this reply might help address your concern about gene transfer.

Your last point regarding heirloom plants is interesting. The trade-off that you mention is due to the fact that you can't control the one specific trait you are interested in through conventional breeding. Each sexual reproduction mixes up the genes of the parents and therefore you end up with a mixed bag of changes. The only one you notice at first might be the bigger flower, but after successive rounds of breeding you'll see other changes in traits like color and scent. Because we are engineering these plants, adding a single genetic trait to an existing genome, we know exactly what information is being included. I'm not sure if we'll see a trade-off in this case because we are not impacting any genes but the ones we're inserting.

poorWilson2 karma

Man, I love this idea. Do you think you could go nuts and put weird patterns or polka dots or something on them? That would be awesome.

RevBio5 karma

Keira: So I really like pattern formation and a polka dot flower is one of my secret goals. It requires some fancier science than the color changing flower though so it will probably take longer and is more of a research project. But yes, polka dots are on my list at least :)

dahemmi2 karma

I'm so keen for the colour changing flower, how long are you expecting to have to invest before you have a working prototype? Do you anticipate the colour changes to be bold or subtle?

RevBio0 karma

We think it could be pretty dramatic -pink to purple is probably an easier transition to achieve, but we're going to try to get one to go from red to blue, just for that reason. Our goal is to have a prototype in a year and something out to the public in two, but we'll be keeping people updated as we progress. Research can be unpredictable!

poorWilson0 karma

That's amazing. I wish you guys all the luck.

RevBio0 karma

Thanks! Sign up for the newsletter if you get a chance, we'll be keeping people updated there.

Rsoiler2 karma

Contact dragons den/shark tank and try to get on one of those shows. This is fascinating. How long before you could put the plants on market?

RevBio1 karma

Thanks! The venture capital firm sponsoring this accellerator is actually run by a former Dragon, so it's definitely interesting to get his perspective. We're looking at about a year or so for a prototype, 2 years before anything is on the market. We'll be keeping people updated through a newsletter, you can sign up on the website if you're interested!

TheGrayGoo2 karma

ELI5: How are you doing this? I get the general idea, just wanna make sure I'm right

After this, what else are you gonna move onto. Something completely different or something using the same technology?

RevBio-1 karma

Sure! So, flower color is determined by levels of small molecules known as anthocyanins (there are other ones, but these form the large majority of colors). These anthocyanins can be modified using certain proteins. With genetic engineering, I can put the expression of these proteins under the control of a genetic element known as a promoter. In this case, I will use a promoter that is involved in the plant circadian clock and is active only at a particular time of day. The goal is to end up with a flower that changes from one color when the proteins are inactive to another when they are active. Does that answer your question?

Plants are unexplored territory at the moment and there are a lot of avenues we can take. This project and its variants will keep us occupied for at least 3-5 years so we have a little time before we need to make a decision. Is there something you'd like to see?

Jux_1 karma

At what point in the field of "synthetic biology" would you say "that's too far?"

RevBio2 karma

Keira's thoughts: This is a tough question and I'm not sure I can draw a line like that right now. What I would like to see is a lot more conversation and a lot less fear - you can't ignore that this technology is here and that there are a lot of potentially detrimental applications, or at least applications that will dramatically change the way we interact with the world.

I strongly believe that bioengineering is going to be a net tool for good. But that's all it is, a tool to accomplish things we couldn't have dreamed of in the past. We need to be shaping the dreams through intense discussion.

i_am_a_mole1 karma

Where can I get the best ice cream?
My apple sapling is skinny, what do?

RevBio3 karma

Nikolai: The best is the kind that comes in the one gallon bucket where you can get 2 for $5.

Keira: Leave the lower branches on as long as possible - that'll help the trunk fill out. When the lower branches are 3/4" thick, that's when I'd prune them. What kind of apples?

benjaminkp1 karma

Sounds like you're doing this to make money when people are trying to burn monsanto crops worldwide as they infect indigenous areas with poison. Good luck though, if you're successful people will be a bit more entertained by things they scorn on a regular basis.

RevBio1 karma

People like their gardens, and we do hope that we can make some money on this - we certainly weren't making any in academia! If we do succeed in building a product that people want with this technology, that's a win for everyone. All of a sudden GMO becomes a lot less scary and the whole field can move forward.

Compliment_Bot221 karma


RevBio2 karma

Keira: Chicken chow mein

Nikolai: Chicken Wellington.

mindmatt1 karma

What is the possibilities of developing a synthetic algae/palnt/organism that produces electricity or some usable form of energy?

RevBio0 karma

Keira here: In academia, people will keep working on projects like this. Microbial fuel cells work on getting bacteria to produce electricity, algal biofuels being worked on as well. But then you have solutions like this, which just converts biomass into useable fuel directly, and the biosynthesis of fuel seems unnecessary.

Things you burn or use up are really difficult to pitch as viable investments because the margins are so very low on them. You need you biofuel to come in at a specific price point and it's unlikely that it will beat digging it out of the ground at this point. A lot of companies are turning away from biofuels and instead producing specialty chemicals and fragrances because they're much more profitable. This Mother Jones piece has a terrible title but does a pretty good job of explaining the switch.

DoctorBLK1 karma

I am planning on becoming a molecular biologist/biochemist, myself. How did you decide you wanted to do this with your lives?

RevBio1 karma

Keira: I was always interested in science, really liked bugs for a while, liked marine biology. I read a Discover magazine issue where they had a cartoon about protein folding and I thought it was amazing! So then I started looking into molecular biology and it was all downhill from there :) If you do decide to take this path, definitely keep the biochemistry degree either as a minor or as a double major. As of right now, there are a lot more opportunities for someone who is comfortable with biochemistry.

SteamrollerAssault1 karma

Nikolai stated earlier that you are creating a petunia that is modified with parts from petunia. Is that all? You aren't introducing any foreign DNA?

RevBio1 karma

We're using parts that already exist in petunia yes. The concept of 'foreign DNA' has specific meanings for some folks - for us, it's DNA that's not included in the wild-type genome, period, regardless of the organism it comes from. This project then, is going to use 'foreign DNA', which has been synthesized in a laboratory somewhere and delivered to us. The plan is to use parts that already exist in petunias, but if those don't work, we may expand into parts from other plants or fungi.

jc-miles1 karma

Will you eventually patent your process?

RevBio1 karma

We aren't sure about this yet. Patents are expensive and difficult to litigate and we're a small company without money or a good legal team. The only reasons we'd really want one would be to keep our invention from being stolen from a larger company, or to impress investors. The horticulture market is small potatoes compared to the big agriculture market, so I doubt someone like Monsanto would bother investing in this area. Plus, one of our investors already likes the idea of 'open source' science, so maybe patents won't be necessary.

Supermansadak1 karma

Do you think in the future people will buy changing flowers ?

RevBio0 karma

Don't know, that's what we're trying to find out!

McGruffin1 karma

Reminds me of Jurassic Park:

"...your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should."

RevBio3 karma

We did actually, and we came to the conclusion that we should. We're working in an annual which has already been extensively modified over the years to produce new and unusual colors and patterns. The parts we are using are from the same plant we're working with, they're just connected slightly differently. We haven't changed the molecules being produced, haven't added any insecticides or herbicide resistance. It's not something you ingest, not something you even have to buy. What other questions should we have considered?

It is an new and interesting use of GM technology and demonstrates that this tool can be used for something beautiful that improves people's lives. So we decided to do it and add a new voice to the conversation about GMO.

superhotbunnysex1 karma

Would you ever make seeds of these flowers available so that gardeners could beta test them for you?

Could you see similar technology being applied to other life forms? Maybe even an animal?

RevBio1 karma

We're trying to figure out if we'll be using seeds or vegetative propagation. As you can see from the thread, people are concerned about 'escape' of this plant into the wild, and it may be easier just sidestep that concern by making this happen in a petunia that is sterile and then vegetatively propagating the plants. I'm of the opinion that this is unnecessary and just more expensive, but it wouldn't be as scary to folks and maybe it's worth doing because of that.

Someone's said they wanted a color-changing horse like in the wizard of Oz, but I don't see that happening. GM technology is being applied to animals - people have already made dogs and cats and pigs and monkeys which express a fluorescent protein so that they glow under blacklight. But every concern people have about plant GMOs is multiplied a hundred times when you're working with animals, plus you have a number of additional ethical concerns. The only GM animal remotely close to approval is this salmon

gennothing1 karma

This sounds cool and creative, and I'm sure it required a lot of hard work and research. Would this be affordable enough for the public to purchase? I would be interested, but cost would be a factor.

RevBio-1 karma

Here's a response that might help answer that question.

rejirongon0 karma

Say these magical flowers became extremely popular would you make it so that the flowers change colours randomly, or have it so that I can set the colour to match my mood. Or even perhaps the flowers can sense the atmosphere in the room and change colour accordingly?

Also what made you want to change flower colours anyway?

RevBio4 karma

Mood is a hard one (see my reply here), but other ways to change the color are feasible. We're thinking about color change on demand, where the user spritzes the flower with a small molecule (maybe something like caffeine) and the flower changes color, but temperature and light sensistivity are also options. Lots of fun possibilities to explore!

rejirongon2 karma

Awesome. It sounds like you could very subtly mess with someone on an anniversary or something. I don't suppose there will be any prototypes ready in time for June 12th?

RevBio2 karma

No, sorry about that! Sign up for the newsletter though if you want to stay in touch. We'll be keeping people posted on as things progress.

RevBio0 karma

We did actually think about this...

_OrangeYouGlad_0 karma


RevBio2 karma

Circadian rhythms are a big part of biology. I bet you see a Nobel prize in the next 5 years for discovery and research on them. I think the molecular mechanisms were originally discovered in fruitfly research (please correct me if I'm wrong), and they are subsequently discovered and the mechanisms understood almost everywhere else.

In plants, you can easily imagine that circadian rhythms are necessary for regulation of cellular processes that differ between the night and day. When the sun is out, a plant needs to express proteins and enzymes necessary for photosynthesis. Some of these proteins have an incredibly high turnover from light/energy related damage. At night, the plant can shut off production of those proteins because there is no need for them.

C1ank0 karma


RevBio1 karma

Keira: Giving it to a really good apple pie.

karmanaut0 karma

If time travel were possible, do you think it would be set and unchangeable, where no matter what you do in the past, it has already happened so nothing you do actually changes the course of history (like Terminator) or do you think it would split into different "timelines" depending on what you did (Like Back to the Future)? And why?

RevBio1 karma

Keira: Butterfly effect all the way, with a million ripples once that timeline changes. Nikolai is transforming bacteria, but I know this is something he'll want to answer too.

RevBio1 karma

Nikolai here. Clearly it would change the course of history like in 'Back to the Future'. I don't even feel like I need to elaborate on that, it's so obvious.

LordMailman0 karma

Hello there!

I'm very excited to see that cool things like this are being done with synthetic biology! I genuinely believe that synthetic biology is the future and particularly in small startups like yours.

Do you have any advice for a recent college grad who wants to get into synthetic biology? I have been looking at PhD and masters programs. Given the current situation in academic funding I am disinclined to enter a PhD program now.

I think i am mostly interested in tweaking bacterial genomes to produce useful chemicals such as a biofuel, pharmaceutical or other industrially relevant chemical.

What's your favorite new synthetic biology technique from the past five or so years?

This is a great idea! Best of luck to you all!

RevBio1 karma

Thanks! It's been exciting & I hope more folks join us.

Keira: I made the decision to get a master's instead of a PhD for the same reason, but I got my Masters in a synthetic biology lab where I did a ton of research and got to know the players in the field. I'd recommend the same for you, specifically that you get involved in a program with a robust iGEM group, and then get involved mentoring those students as well. What's your background?

And my favorite synthetic biology technique is CRISPR/Cas9 - you can do so many incredible things with it! Repression, activation, genome editing, all of it. It's a small bacterial protein that uses a guide RNA (RNA that matches your sequence of interest). The guide RNA finds your piece of DNA and the protein performs a function - and that's it! Looks like it can be used in plants and animals, which is huge since most of those can be difficult to engineer.

LordMailman1 karma

I have a BS in Biology with a concentration in Ecology. I've been out for about a year working for a large biotech firm.

I've actually begun a project working with CRISPR now! I've been wanting to use it for a few months but I just managed to get my boss on board. We're trying to do some gene knockouts.

RevBio1 karma

Nice! & congrats on snagging an industry job right off the bat. I would love to hear how the CRISPR experiment goes.

eHawleywood-1 karma

You seem very smart and this seems very pointless, so...

What are you hoping to use your findings for? Do you want plants to be able to use color to reflect certain situations/dangers (my lilacs just turned red I must have a gas leak!) or will you try to use the methods you develop to accomplish this in another field?

RevBio4 karma

We might be able to try to do something useful with it eventually, but honestly, we just wanted to make something beautiful. I explain it a little more in this reply.