While genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are created with DNA from natural sources, the products of synthetic biology are often brought to life with DNA sequences invented on a computer.
Critics warn that the untested and unmonitored release of the seeds is ill-advised because no one would be able to control what happens to the plants once they leave the lab. Adding to the concern is that the genes that make the plants glow will be passed from one generation to the next.
"What if someone decides it would be cute to light up a national forest?" asked Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University and an adviser to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on synthetic biology.
A coalition of more than 110 environmental watchdog organizations has called on international regulators to demand independent risk assessments for these types of projects. But it's not clear which U.S. agency should take the lead.
The various groups within the Department of Interior that oversee land and ecological issues — the Bureau of Land Management and Fish and Wildlife Service — say it's outside their purview. The Food and Drug Administration says it is not involved because the plant is not meant to be eaten. The Environmental Protection Agency says it's a Department of Agriculture matter.
In an e-mail exchange with the Glowing Plant Project's founders, the USDA acknowledges that this particular project may be outside its powers, too, because of the way the glowing plant is being created. Because the scientists are shooting the DNA into the plant tissue by using a gene gun instead of using older methods, the federal framework for regulating biotechnology doesn't cover this process.
The government guidelines were finalized in 1986. The gene gun wasn't unveiled until the following year, 1987, in the journal Nature.