In a scene straight out of a sci-fi movie set, scientists are working on engineering plants that glow as brightly as your typical household lamp. Their mix of synthetic biology, genetic sequencing and glowing bacteria promises to produce a new kind of sustainable lighting.
If getting plants to glow naturally sounds familiar it’s because this has been in the works for decades. A couple years ago Taiwanese scientists successfully implanted glowing gold nanoparticles called bio LEDs into an aquatic plant. They hoped that glowing trees could one day replace street lamps but still needed to overcome key challenges first. A group the State University of New York also got plants to grow, just not very brightly.
The latest effort strikes me as quite promising. Tech entrepreneur Antony Evans, synthetic biologist Omri Amirav-Drory and plant expert Kyle Taylor are leading the Glowing Plant project. Their approach entails creating bioluminescent plants similar to the ones made at SUNY but getting them to glow brighter with better DNA sequencing and printing.
Their bioluminescent system consists of a protein called luciferase that can break down the fuel to produce light, called luciferin. This process is so efficient that it hardly produces any heat, Amirav-Drory recently told DNews’ Anthony Carboni (video).
That luciferase-luciferin system enables fireflies, fungi and some bacteria to glow. Getting that to happen in plants is fairly complicated so the Glowing Plant team used a prototyping method that relies on an agrobacterium. Although this agrobacterium can inject part of its genome into a plant, unfortunately it’s also a highly regulated plant pest.
If you’re worried about this all going awry and creating glowing weeds everywhere, fear not. The team is only using the agrobacterium to figure out what works best in the lab — they’ll use a safer method for the actual production. And Amirav-Drory told DNews that adding bioluminescence removes energy from cells so these plants will be less adaptable than normal ones in the evolutionary sense.
I do have a lot of questions that haven’t been answered yet. Like what happens if you accidentally kill a glowing plant? Will it be compostable? And how do you turn the plant off? Can you put it under a shade? If all the details get sorted out, I’d love to a viable alternative to CFLs. Swirly bulbs might be super-efficient but they’re annoying to recycle.
So far the Glowing Plant Kickstarter campaign has blown past its goal to raise $65,000 for getting the project off the ground, and there’s still more than a month to go. This is a bright, wacky idea that I can’t wait to see in action.
Photo: Scientists are actively creating plants that glow, similar to this one created in the 1980s. Credit: GlowingPlant.com.