Remember that exhilarating and mesmerizing feeling you had when you watched how the plants glowed upon touch in the Science-Fiction movie, Avatar? What if we were to tell you, that there is a truly glowing plant already in existence, would you believe us?
Antony Evans and his team of ‘mad’ scientists have perfected the magical formula of real glowing plants right in your home! An ingenious new innovation named the Glowing Plant is as its name suggests, a glowing plant safe enough to be placed in your home and it even has a special variety that doubles up as a an air freshener.
We managed to catch up with Anthony Evans to ask him about his motivation and journey creating the Glowing Plant thus far, when he attended the Emtech Asia 2016. This annual conference gathers the greatest minds of both the technology and medical world to share their valuable insights and was held from 26-27 January.
TS: Take us through from the beginning, what triggered and inspired you to get this innovation going?
AE: I guess I was inspired at Singularity University, where I took the 10 week graduate study programme. There I took a look at the amazing exponential improvements that we are seeing in reading DNA - DNA sequencing and writing DNA - DNA synthesis.
The idea that within my career generation, we are going to be responsible for finally getting control of this process - in creating new novel biological organisms. I want to be a part of that.
Five years ago, I didn’t know a lot about biology at that time so I set out to learn about it, and I believe you learn by doing. So I started going to a local hacker space called Bio-curious in SUNY-ville, where I met biologists to about trends and trying for myself to understand what is happening and if it is real.
During the collaboration out of those meetings, we developed this hypothesis understanding that the tools for genetic engineering are becoming democratised. They are becoming available to more people, and what this means is that, in the very near future more people will be able to engineer new biological organisms in the way that they engineer mobile apps today.
So we wanted to inspire some of that future and that is where the Glowing Plant project came from. This is in collaboration with a few guys from Bio-curious, the idea here is to make a real Glowing plant. Glowing plants have helped human fascination for a really long time, first mention going back to India thousands of years ago. So we put up a Kickstarter page, which went pretty well and we raised about half a million dollars to make this product - we are pretty close to shipping its first version of that.
TS: So how long did you take before you managed to come up with a working prototype?
AE: Well, I think the question would be more relevant if it is ‘how long would it take us to make it today.’ When we started this, it was pretty early in this field, we had to build a lot of the tools, technology and a platform we call, TAXA. TAXA is a service that allows people to do genetic engineering for novel useful functions with us. If we were to replicate the Glowing plant now with tools that we built, I think it would probably take 18 months. The Glowing Plant took us 3 years because we had to build a lot of these tools.
TS: When I first got to know about the project that you are working on, me being a sci-fi freak what first came up to me was Avatar. There is so much talk that Sci-fi is becoming real and nothing is going to fiction, it is becoming Science-Nonfiction instead of Science-fiction, so what do you think about it?
AE: That’s awesome! My favourite scene in Avatar is the scene when they are running and you can see the glowing footsteps, I want to make glowing grass that responds to touch, so when you walk across the lawn you see glowing footprints when you walk across the lawn at night.
That is awesome. We create those futures; people will come up with new futures. Human creativity is unbounded and un-trappable. I don’t believe that everything has been invented, once we have uploaded consciousness and implants that can access the Internet directly in our brain all the time, and have engineered our bodies to never die - I am a bit sceptical myself, but that is a great problem to have.
I think that is a terrific problem and science-fiction offers a future that can grapple with that and I don’t think there would be a problem coming up with new things too.
TS: What was the one biggest challenge or roadblock you have faced in this process?
AE: I think it would be the online haters and learning to deal with it. We work in genetic engineering which is a controversial field and I did not anticipate a backlash until I threw a project out there and put myself out.
We get a couple of hate mail, pseudo death threats and people writing nasty messages. It is however, offset by some of our amazing supporters. For everyone that writes something horrible, we also have people writing something nice and supportive to us.
TS: Looking back, what would you have done anything differently if you had known, what you know today?
AE: That is a good question. I think we would have started tackling the most difficult problems first. Biology has a lot of dependencies; you have to do A before B, before C and before D. We started in the beginning with A, but probably what we should have done was start with C which was the most difficult thing and maybe done more things in parallel.
TS: What has been the one greatest satisfaction working on this development so far?
AE: I think it would be working on something that you think is important for humanity and the world. Having the chance to follow a dream and be able to do that every day is great; I am very fulfilled with my life right now.
TS: Name one compelling end-user or consumer use case you have for your invention.
AE: Fragrant mosses are a replacement for air fresheners, it doesn’t need petroleum based inputs, lives in your home and all you have to do is water it.
TS: How would any of the inventions you have been working on today, disrupt and change the world so to speak?
AE: I think the most disruptive thing is that I have is a different view on the GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) debate. I believe that consumer products made with biotechnology have a potential to change people’s minds about GMOs and if we can do that, if we can disrupt that resistance to that, then we have done something.
TS: In one sentence, how do you think life in 2030 is going to look like?
AE: Bill Gates talked about a computer on very desktop, in every home. I would like to see a genetically modified organism in every home and on every desktop in 2030.
By Geralyne Kaye / 2 February, 2016 11:09AM GMT+8 Singapore
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