Science Archives - Revolution Bioengineering

Category Archives: Science

02 Apr

Happy April!


Geemo can't detect other GMOs - just itself

Geemo can’t detect other GMOs – just itself

Hope you had a great April 1!  It seems like the world is back to normal now, but if you’re like me you probably spend a little too much time playing Google maps Pacman and wishing that Tesla’s parking ticket avoiding cars were available for sale.

Our April Fools joke, Geemo the GMO detector, got some interesting attention too. To come up with Geemo, we just looked at our color-changing flower in a new way: it’s engineered to turn purple. Therefore, when it turns purple, you know there’s a GMO around… Geemo!

We got the idea when a woman at SxSW suggested that we bioengineer a GMO detector.  The conversation started out pleasant, but once she learned that we were doing GMO work, her whole mood changed, she became visibly uncomfortable, and she made a comment as she walked away along the lines that “we need to create a plant that can detect GMOs and will turn a putrid brown when it encounters one.” That gave us a chuckle– A GMO plant that can detect GMOs.  Delightfully absurd for an April fools prank.

It turns out that a lot of people are interested in a GMO detector. People want information, and they want to understand how technology impacts them. We hope we’ve been able to do this at RevBio by communicating clearly and starting conversations – Geemo or not, our color changing flower is a pretty cool innovation.


23 Jan

Bioengineering Dragons, Part II – Design

In Part I we talked about the rationale for bioengineering a dragon.

After a healthy and instructive discussion about your dragon needs, it turns out that you mainly want one because it’s cool (and maybe you want to impress your friends a little). Louboutin, Ferrari, Cartier, they are all products that exist primarily to meet this need. In this case, the product is a living creature and I think it is important to reiterate that we must have an ongoing and continuous conversation about the ethics involved.

It also turns out you are ludicrously wealthy and able to fund this project in perpetuity because that’s approximately how long it’s going to take to make you a dragon.

Cuddly doesn’t always mean fluffy. A 1912 drawing of a lap dragon by R. Leinweber


Bioengineering multicellular organisms is expensive. It’s time consuming. It can be a huge investment of resources and people, and very often the way you thought biology worked is only the most surface layer of function, adding years on to your research timeline. Our color-changing flowers, for example, were designed on a solid foundation of basic research spanning 30 years, a known pathway, and team of petunia color experts, and a lot of that planning involved ways to overcome known unknowns. We needed a clear idea about what we wanted to achieve before we could develop a practical technical plan to accomplish it.

So, what do you want your dragon to look like?

  • Does the dragon need wings? Scales? Teeth?
  • Does it have to breathe fire?
  • Does the dragon need four legs or can it get by with two?
  • How big should the dragon be?

There is an exceptional flash game by Wyndbain where you can build your dragon with wings, claws, and 8 pages (!) of horn styles. However it has a terrible ad that plays when I embed it, so you’ll have to click here to use it.

Dragons are mythical creatures so we have a pretty blank slate. We can focus on the features we need to meet our goals — We don’t need to achieve full Game of Thrones functionality in the first iteration. You’re not Daenerys. If you had a full grown firebreathing dragon, at some point it would just set fire to your house and eat the neighbor kid.

Let’s starting by engineering something that looks like a dragon – something small, something that smells of sulfur once in a while. I’m thinking that the primary requirements are wings and a scaled body. Jointed wings – even if they can’t be used to fly – and a body covered in scales are pretty unmistakeable as a dragon hallmark. Everything else can be negotiated.

Disagree? Share your thoughts in the comments.

14 Jan

How to make a dragon – a step by step bioengineering guide

Revolution Bio is at the top of the search results for the terms ‘crazy bioengineering dragon idea.’ While we are making color-changing flowers, not dragons, I’m pretty excited that people looking for incredible advances in biotechnology find us on the front page. So I’m going to take a cue from XKCD’s “What If” blag and answer the question “What would it take to engineer a dragon?”

Trogdor the Burninator - Homestar Runner“Feel free to follow along with my simple step-by-step instruction.” – Strongbad, Homestar Runner

Part 1 – Should we bioengineer a dragon?

Before starting in on our dragon, we should carefully consider whether or not this project has a function beyond “Well that’s cool.” Modifying a living creature in any way, shape, or form has ethical implications – conventional breeding included. Animals have been domesticated and bred for millenia, and now broiler chickens have such disproportionate amounts of white meat that they can’t stand up . Soldiers and police rely on German Shepherds, but these dogs often have terrible hip problems as a result of their pedigree. There needs to be a compelling and comprehensive answer as to why we should engineer an organism.

Our reason for engineering a dragon doesn’t have to be as direct as “I need to regain the Iron Throne”, though — maybe there are significant technical advances that could be made by starting this project, like better understanding the developmental processes that result in wings and scales and fire-breathing. Maybe this is an engaging way to get the public intrigued in science, technology and the way the two are rapidly evolving. Maybe there are a LOT of consumers that want a pet dragon, or lap giraffes, or housecats that look like lions and cheetahs, and we just didn’t know it until someone asked the question. (Is this you? Support consumer biotechnology and sign up for our mailing list here).

A lap giraffe - luxury consumer biotechnology
Admit it, you signed up for the waiting list.

Let’s take a close look at why we need a dragon, and then determine whether bioengineering is the best possible solution to those needs.

In some cases, there may be an existing solution that could take the place of bioengineering a dragon. Are you looking for an animal companion that will keep down your goat population? Why not a golden eagle instead? Maybe you want a trusty steed that you can rely on in dangerous situations. Horses might be a little tame for your taste, but a war zebra or an elephant might do just as well.

blog post trogdor part 1 dragon v 747
Left: Airplane, Right: Dragon

It’s also unlikely that bioengineering will be the quick and inexpensive way to accomplish your goal. If your primary goal is personal flight transportation, we have some incredible aeronautical engineering marvels out there in the shape of airplanes and helicopters, and human powered gliders also exist. At today’s level of technology, there is no possible way that making this dragon will be in any way cheaper or faster than mechanical flight. An animal that a human can ride through the air is a tall order.

Right now “because they’re cool” is probably still at the top of your list of reasons to bioengineer a dragon. The cool factor drives a lot of product development in everything from fashion to electronics. Dragons, the imaginary ones that don’t exist, are pretty amazing — but to get from zero to dragon, you are going to have to do a lot of basic research and testing. And when we’re talking about engineering a living creature and all its complexities, this can yield ugly, not-quite-dragon, results.

So, is it worth it? Should we bioengineer a dragon? Share your thoughts below!

Part II – Design

07 Jan

Plant Blindness – Can’t see the forest

Do you suffer from planta ablepsia? Common symptoms include not spending enough time in wild places, being unable to identify what part of which plant generates the french fry, and thinking of plants as “biological wallpaper”

blog post plant blindness banana leaf A banana leaf – trillions of cells turning sunlight and carbon dioxide into a beautifully geometric wallpaper for your computer screen.

Plants are everywhere, but people tend to ignore them. As time spent in the woods becomes time spent in front of a screen, it’s easy to go through life without having to look closely at the green things around us. This has become known as plant blindness and it’s something that botanists, educators, and gardeners across the world are working to end.

blog post plant blindness allOne plant, many uses. A) Banana; B) Banana C) Banana D) Banana

We depend on plants not only for the food we eat, what we feed our animals, and the fibers we wear, but for their role in maintaining a living planet. Plants breathe with us, consuming carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. They purify water and release it into the atmosphere, influencing the water cycle. They provide habitat for animals and insects, and tie soil to the landscape, maintaining a healthy ecosystem capable of sustaining life.

“…people don’t understand that plants are absolutely integral to our survival and the survival of every other living thing on the planet. We could not live without them.” – Thomas A Block, Director Morris Hill Arboretum

Our understanding of these processes is not complete, neither within a plant nor on a global scale. Forests pull up to 30% of the carbon dioxide humans produce out of the air and into their timber – but we don’t know the best way to manage them to mitigate climate change. Botanical research and seed preservation face devastating budget cuts, weakening our ability to study biodiversity and improve conservation efforts. Even with growing interest in local farming and protecting the environment, there is a long way to go before plants are appreciated the way they need to be.

blog post plant blindness tree
A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in. Plant, study and preserve for the next generation.

Plants are more than just background scenery – they have a critical role to play in our future. We hope our color-changing flower will ignite a new fascination with plants, inspiring people to take a second look at the tree in their backyard and the flowers in their garden.

Botanists battle ‘plant blindness’ with seeds of knowledge in the Philadelphia Post by V.A. Smith
29 Dec

Consumer Biotechnology

We love answering questions! Joshua E. asks What fields do you think consumer biotech can enter and what tools can be used to achieve these goals?

Hi Joshua,

Consumer biotechnology is just that – biotechnology made for you to use in your everyday life.

When people hear the word ‘biotechnology’ they think of scientists in white lab coats working for years on complex scientific problems.
blog post consumer biotechnology scientists
This is what Google thinks a scientist looks like. We suggest you visit Looks Like Science for some more diversity.

This means that unless you are interested in becoming one of those people in white lab coats, you often don’t have the opportunity to have hands on experience with ‘biotech’. It can seem like a mysterious process.

Computers started out a bit like this too – they weren’t available to the general public at first, and people reacted to them with skepticism. What could they possibly be good for?

“There is a world market for maybe 5 computers”
Thomas Watson, IBM Chairman, 1943

Today everyone owns multiple computers—tablets, laptops, cell phones, entertainment systems, etc. They have made a whole new world of connection and technology possible.

The interesting thing is that the turning point in computer innovation wasn’t just better/cheaper technology or the demonstrated benefit of a time-saving spreadsheet. Games played an important role. The accessibility and availability of the technology to add some fun and interest to the everyday person’s life is what made the computer exciting. And, it got people thinking about what else computers could do.

blog post consumer biotechnology Pong

This entertained a generation.

blog post consumer biotechnology pacman
Then this did.

blog post consumer biotechnology dragons

Then suddenly, dragons.

Today, fields like genetic engineering and synthetic biology share the fundamental goal of allowing us to engineer biological systems. Tools like CRISPR genome editing and mathematical models of biological systems allow us to develop new biotechnology with greater precision.

We’ve already done some great things with this – insulin, for example, comes from genetically engineered bacteria and improves the quality of life for millions of diabetics. Artemesinin (a powerful malaria drug) is now produced on an industrial scale in microbial bioreactors. These are important life-saving uses of biotechnology.

But this is not what will spur the same sort of creative innovation that has taken computer technology from four ton machines to the iPhone. To do that, we need people to have biotechnology in their hands. At Revolution Bio, we’re making Pong for the biotech world: Color-changing flowers. They’re beautiful, accessible, and something that everyone can appreciate.

That’s what consumer biotechnology is all about, making advanced biological science personal and fun. Like Pong, this is just the start. We think consumer biotechnology could have an impact in everything from the gardens we plant, the materials we use for building, the fabrics we wear, even the way you recycle.

It’s safe to say that we can’t predict the most amazing advances to come out of this movement. Who would have imagined Skyrim while playing PONG? We’re excited to be a part of this incredible new field and we’re looking forward to making consumer biotechnology a part of your life.

We love answering questions! Ask your question here

05 Dec

Inspired by Biofabricate!

I couldn’t snag a ticket to Biofabricate 2014, but enjoyed following along with the conversation on Twitter throughout the day! The excitement was palpable & I was inspired to make the infographic below – I hope it helps you share the adventure of #growingthefuture. I’m looking forward to 2015 and a year full of beautiful biology (including color-changing flowers!) – K

What did you think of the conference?

04 Jun

Getting Started


Look at those beautiful little tubes of DNA sitting on ice – we’ve gotten our regulatory approval, we have our genetic components, the enzymes to put them together and the cells they’ll go into. We’re all set for some molecular biology!

Here’s a quick run-down of our work today:
A month ago, we synthesized 1000 basepair pieces of DNA out of our list of color-changing flower components. On their own, these strings of A,T,C,and G won’t do anything – we need to arrange them in the proper context.

First, the DNA fragments need to be inserted into a plasmid. This is a circular piece of DNA that, when inserted in a bacteria, will be replicated and maintained with very little error. The plasmid Nikolai is building will contain our synthesized DNA, the replication instructions, and a way to identify bacteria that have taken up the plasmid. To insert the synthesized DNA in the plasmid, we add the two types of DNA to a tube with a buffer that contains ions and molecules needed to carry out the reaction. Then we add some glue – an enzyme, ‘ligase,’ which connects the ends of the DNA together.

Dr. Braun at the bench setting up a DNA ligation

Dr. Braun at the bench setting up a DNA ligation

How does the ligase know whether it’s connecting the plasmid to the synthesized DNA or to itself? It doesn’t! So we need to develop ways to tell whether or not our synthesized DNA is in the right spot. The pJET kit we’re using has a neat way to do this. The plasmid is already cut right in the middle of a gene that generates a toxic product. If you don’t insert a piece of DNA, the ligase will re-connect the two ends of the plasmid, completing the toxic gene sequence. The toxic gene will be expressed, and those bacteria will die. However, if the synthesized DNA was inserted into the plasmid, it will interrupt the toxic gene, preventing it from killing the bacterial cell. The cell will live, replicate the DNA, and now you have a self-maintaining stock of your DNA part.

This is only the first step. Once this process is complete we’ll have to ‘read’ the plasmids to make sure that the DNA we have is what we think it is. Even if they’re correct, these plasmids don’t have all the necessary information yet so we’ll have to do some additional steps to add the rest of the information. There’s a lot of science to share – ask questions in the comments below!