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Glowing Plants on Kickstarter

The Ethics of Synthetic Biology

Co Authors:

Brynn F. Welch
Department of Philosophy
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Christine M. Fleet
Biology Department
Emory & Henry College


This case study is centered on a real scenario from 2013 in which the Kickstarter fundraising platform included a fundraising proposal from a group wanting to use synthetic biology to make glowing plants. The proposal raised controversy because the Glowing Plant group offered to give away their genetically-modified glowing plant product to investors.  Kickstarter subsequently changed its policy to prevent use of genetically modified organisms as rewards or incentives to investors. This case study was developed for a college first-year seminar focused on the ethics of synthetic biology, and was introduced during the first week of the semester. The case uses the jigsaw teaching method to introduce students both to the mechanics of synthetic biology and to questions about how we should distribute the benefits and burdens associated with new or emerging technologies. It could be adapted for courses in introductory college biology, genetics or bioethics.

  • Learn about basic methodologies used in synthetic biology, along with its range of applications.
  • Identify regulatory and ethical concerns associated with synthetic biology.
  • Identify reasons that support or oppose use of synthetic biology and begin to prioritize those reasons.
  • Develop skills necessary for future group work.
  • Develop skills identifying and processing relevant information.
  • Identify key questions about synthetic biology that still need to be addressed.
Keywords: synthetic biology; plant biology; bioethics; genetics; ethics; Glowing Plant; Kickstarter
Topical Area: Ethics, Regulatory issues
Educational Level: Undergraduate lower division, Undergraduate upper division
Formats: PDF
Type/Method: N/A, Analysis (Issues), Jig-Saw
Language: English
Subject Headings: Biology (General)   Biotechnology   Botany / Plant Science   Genetics / Heredity   Molecular Biology  
Date Posted: 10/31/2016
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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