Trees That Glow:
A Very Real Interview
with Katy Presland
BY Bob Beier
The Biotechnology and Biological Society Research Council holds a yearly competition to introduce scientists to the business world. The competition involves developing a scientific product idea upon which a business could be based. Katy Presland, a neuroscientist, along with four other postgraduate students at the University of Hertfordshire, UK, dreamed up the idea of a Christmas tree that grew its own lights. They named their fictitious company Aura Biotech. Since genetic engineers have already created glowing mice, silk, and potatoes, why not pine needles? Theoretically it’s possible. The team detailed a plan to modify a Douglas spruce with two genes, luciferase and GFP (green fluorescent protein), to make it luminesce. The genes would be taken from fireflies and fluorescent jellyfish, and introduced into the seedlings through an infectious agent carrying the genes. Blue fluorescent proteins have also been discovered, and a red fluorescent protein was found in a type of coral. This means that, in theory, the GM (genetically modified) Christmas tree could grow its own multicolored lights.
Bob Beier: Good evening, Katy. I’d like to thank you for taking the time to sit with a strange man and talk about your passion. I assume your passion isn’t very strange to you, since it drives you every day, but not to work—it’s too bad your passion can’t drive you to work, isn’t it? It’ll drive you crazy, but will never do something as useful as chauffeuring. When I thought about the idea of a glowing Christmas tree and the woman who was the motivating force behind Aura Biotech, I tried to imagine what it was that spurred you to come up with such a beautiful idea. I pictured a little girl running through the forests catching fireflies. She holds one of them cupped in her hand, she looks in and the firefly glows, more incredible than the moon because it can tickle her hand. Then her evil sibling comes up behind her and forces her hand open and slams it against the tree, smearing the firefly all over the bark. She looks at the sibling-beast, not with tears in her eyes, but with a vision. “Thank you,” she says. “Felix culpa! I will make trees glow.” Then I wondered if there were even fireflies in England. Then I felt stupid. How did you come up with the idea for a glowing Christmas tree?
Katy Presland: If only the inception of our idea were that picturesque! The real picture was five Ph.D. students holding a meeting in a flat in Hatfield, desperately brainstorming for a business competition. Some of the ideas that were knocked around were virtual doctors performing transatlantic operations, a topical gel that slows down wound healing in children (thus reducing the risk of scar formation), and Christmas trees that self-illuminate.
BB: How did the Christmas tree idea win out?
KP: A few of us joked about the Christmas tree idea for some time before the competition. It was after hearing about glowing tomatoes and mouse ears. We had probably reacted in a similar way to most people: “Whatever will they think of next?” “You could make anything glow!” And “It won’t be long before they make Christmas trees glow.”
BB: And then the joke became not so funny. A joke that fell on its face and took root in the ground. Ha.
KP: (Pause) At first we were a little reluctant about the idea, thinking “Hmmm, is this going to be just another gimmick? Will it last? And can we do it?” After hours of deliberating (mostly down at the local pub, as the cramped-up flat had lost its appeal as a meeting venue), we decided it was a great challenge and worth a go to develop the self-illuminating Christmas tree.
BB: Self-illuminating. I know the tree is rendered bioluminescent through genetic modification. The gene for luciferase is introduced into the tree using a virus. How exactly does this work? Is it introduced on a cellular level before the tree sprouts or is it done when it’s a sapling?
KP: This was one of our initial hurdles. Originally we were looking at transfecting seeds with the luciferase gene using a well-established vector system (Agrobacterium). However, due to problems with transmission of light and low intensity of light production from luciferase alone, luciferase and green fluorescent protein GFP were chosen to produce the transgenic plants. The use of energy transfer between luciferase and GFP prevents the need for excitation using blue or UV light, which would be required if the trees were expressing GFP alone. This has obvious advantages, since UV light has its own inherent dangers, and also removes the need for the marketing of separate lighting systems—blue bulbss—with the trees. We found a method which would enable the genes to be introduced into shoot cultures. An easier technique, potentially more reliable.
BB: Can you infect an adult tree and make it glow?
KP: With regard to transfecting adult trees, a development idea in the pipeline was a viral vector system to transmit the genes. However, our trees that were developing from seedlings would be more environmentally friendly, as they would be rendered sterile by knocking out a sequence involved in pine cone production. Something that would not be able to be achieved by transfecting adult trees.
BB: How brightly would the trees glow? Would they glow at a constant or would there be fluctuations? Could you, in theory, have a blinking, glowing tree?
KP: As to how brightly they would glow, we can’t say until we do it, if we do decide to do it. We are confident they would produce a noticeable light. Blinking lights? We hadn’t really considered that one, although we did look at ways of controlling the light timing. Theoretically, we could produce the trees to glow continuously, provided that they are able to produce enough substrate (luciferine) for the first reaction. However, this would have given us a product which, once sold, would decrease the market. We wanted to create a hold market, so we looked into producing a substrate fertilizer and delivery system. Thus, our trees would glow only upon delivery of the substrate fertilizer. An inducible glowing tree was more to our liking. We also didn’t think the public would fancy being kept up all night by a glowing tree.
BB: The tree needs the luciferine in the soil to react with the luciferase in the tree to produce the reaction that enables light. You also have a captive market because people need to buy more soil to have it glow. Nice. Did you know the root of the word luciferine is Lucifer, lux, light? Have you joked about this one over at the pub?
KP: We do know of the derivation of luciferine. It came up on my spell check every time I typed the word. We did mention it and wondered if this would be highlighted by people against genetic modification. My priest—I’m Catholic—wasn’t that keen as he mentioned it at mass one day, but he didn’t throw me out of the church. Really, the only abuse I received was from an organic Christmas tree farmer in Wales, who rather angrily wanted to know “What the hell we thought we were doing trying to genetically modify Father Christmas.”
BB: You worked with four other people on this project, and I hear that they were reticent about giving interviews because of the anti-biotechnology feeling over in Europe. Why are people afraid of this? Americans don’t seem to be too afraid. You mentioned in another interview that you thought the Americans would go for the trees (which would cost around $380.00). What do you think the difference is?
KP: A lot of controversy surrounds GM, and Europe, as you mentioned, has been particularly opposed. People are always afraid of the unknown. Man wouldn’t have developed past the wheel had we stopped at everyone’s distaste. However, everyone is entitled to their opinion, and in order to enhance ideas you need opposition to overcome. One of the main problems with Europe is that it views its farmland as countryside, which is fast diminishing. America, on the other hand, has vast amounts of farmland (there are approximately 18,000 Christmas tree growers in the US) which is considered private property, for business/commercial use. Therefore, there is a considerable amount of difference in the attitudes towards GM.
BB: Sounds like America may be a better place to do business.
KP: The transatlantic divide over GM means that we would probably move our business over to the US where there is more acceptance.
BB: Could you make specific body parts glow?
KP: Yes, potentially you could make body parts glow. Animal tissue is easier to transfect than plant, and the illumination may be more effective due to the nature of the membrane, as opposed to the thick cell wall of plants. However, whether or not that’s ethical is another thing. Though we did mention glowing tropical fish that would require the expensive fluorescent lighting. We went off that idea, though—far too controversial.
BB: Could we have glowing children?
KP: I wouldn’t go so far as glowing kids. The problem with advances in science is that you’ll always get people that abuse the ideas. I think you do have to be careful, and yes some of the responsibility ultimately lies with the people who had the idea in the first place. That’s all it is: An idea we have expressed, theoretically plausible. Whether or not we go ahead and do it is another thing.
BB: You mentioned to me that you felt many scientists were clueless regarding business ventures. What does that mean? I thought scientists weren’t supposed to be business people.
KP: Scientists with good business sense are pretty rare. But that’s the whole point of the competition. To develop these skills. Is it driven by materialism? Isn’t everything? I think the key is to use the business skills that we develop to improve ways of introducing technology that may not at first have seemed such a commercially viable option. For example, our self-illumination system could be used as a crop disease marker. The simplified idea being a genetically modified area of crop field (rendered sterile), with the self-illuminating genes inserted at a region that will be activated if the plants become infected. Thus, it may be used as an early warning system preventing excess loss of crops. However, the Christmas tree was so different and appealing that it captures far more attention than if we were to introduce the disease marker system alone. The disease-marker system would be beneficial to the producers more so than the consumers, whilst the Christmas tree has more obvious benefits for both: The attractive novel qualities, reduced fire risk, and reduced hassle of fairy lights. So our idea is to use the material-driven science, that would provoke far more attention, to push forward the useful ideas that may not have received the interest otherwise.
BB: Could you ask your daughter this: If she could make anything glow, what would it be?
KP: My ten-year-old daughter, when posed the question, replied, “Rudolph’s nose.” I told her somebody had already beaten us to that. Her second attempt was teddy bears, the beanies she sleeps with—I’m sure they are as much as a craze in the US as over here. No need for GM there. Maybe I could just use her ideas and paint the trees with glow-in-the-dark paint. Far cheaper and simpler.
BB: But not as cool.
KP: I’m going to have to call it a day. My real-life genetically modified ovum—I’m pregnant, you see—is going to need some sleep. Just in case you got the wrong end of the stick: It’s naturally genetically modified.
BB: That’s fantastic. Congratulations on the baby.
KP: It’s been nice talking to you, Bob.
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