Kickstarter bans genetically engineered rewards

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Kickstarter quietly added a new rule to its creator guidelines to ban genetically modified organisms (GMO) after a project to fund a glowing plant skyrocketed to success.

(Credit: Glowing Plant)

If you have a plan to fund the creation of a genetic hybrid on Kickstarter, you can no longer offer it to backers as a reward. The website has added a new term to its guidelines stating, "Projects cannot offer genetically modified organisms as a reward."

The new rule came into effect after the successful funding of Glowing Plants, a project to modify Arabidopsis and rose plants with firefly and luminescent bacteria DNA so that they would glow in the dark, providing a natural light source. The project, created by trained biologists, offered the seeds of the plant, if successfully created, for US$40. The project raked in US$484,013 — from a goal of US$65,000 — from 8433 backers.

But the project spurred debate in the scientific community. GMO is supposed to be tightly controlled, for very good reason. When you release a genetically modified plant into the environment, there is no way of knowing what effects it may have on that environment. Case in point: thanks to transgenes, a type of weed in China has benefited from a genetic pesticide resistance built into other plants and become more hardy as a result.

And part of the problem is that it's impossible to predict the result of the introduction of GMO; often, the impact won't be clear until after the damage is already done.

Kickstarter initially gave no reason for its new policy. The Glowing Plants team said that its project was legal under US law; and, indeed, the new policy does not affect it or its backers. However, going forward, no such projects will be allowed to take place.

Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler told The Verge that the scientific debate was indeed what spurred the website to make the change.

"We reached out to a few scientists, researchers and others in the biohacking world for their perspective," he said. "What emerged is that the scientific community is unsettled on the best practices and ethics of releasing genetically modified organisms into the world. The scientific community is still debating this. It's a complicated issue. After a lot of deliberation, we felt the most prudent course was to create a narrow rule that addressed the most debated part of this: offering genetically modified organisms as rewards to backers. It intentionally does not prohibit projects involving biohacking in general."

As it currently stands, depending on where the project originates, GMO may be blocked from importation, which would at least reduce the potential effects. In the European Union, for example, GMO is very stringently controlled, and any attempt at importing unregulated GMO is illegal. Likewise, Australians cannot import any live flora that is not on the approved species list.

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