Glowing Plants Could Be the New Light Bulb

Bioluminescence can help light up the night electricity-free.

Jul 24, 2020

Bioluminescence is a majestic blue-green glow. It refers primarily to light that sea creatures and bacteria emit from the depths of the ocean. While some land species also transmit this glow, most bioluminescence remains in the ocean. Until now. 

A team of researchers has recently discovered a new and more effective way to use this light on land for human enjoyment and advancement. Published this past April, a new study reveals that by integrating mushroom DNA into tobacco plants, flora could begin emitting a renewable bioluminescent light ten times stronger than previously known! 

Over the past decade, seeking to replace the electric lightbulb, numerous companies have sought to generate a bright and renewable light from bioluminescence, but have fallen short, finding that most attempts produce only a faint glow. 

However, the study discovered that the DNA in bioluminescent mushrooms is metabolically similar to processes that many plants naturally undergo, making it easier than before to make plants glow!

They also found that the new bioluminescent tobacco plants produced over one billion photons per minute, which is ten times brighter than previous bacteria-based research had found, reports EurekAlert.

The study also found the health of the plant wasn’t compromised by the mushroom’s DNA. In fact, various parts of the plant were illuminated including the roots, stems, leaves, and even the flowers. And the younger plants glowed more strongly than did the older ones. 

The team of 27 scientists found another exciting discovery. There is no need for chemical reagents to maintain a steady flow of light to the plant; unlike fireflies, mushrooms glow throughout their lifetime. 

“We think that this represents a new wave of bioluminescence-based technologies – those that rely on self-sustained luminescence and don’t require the addition of chemical substrates,” explained Karen Sarkisyan, lead author of the study and head of the Synthetic Biology group at the London Institute of Medical Sciences in a research news release from the university.  

“We did not expect that the experience of seeing the glow in the full-grown plant with the naked eye would be so magical. I believe all members of the team would agree with me on that,” Sarkisyan said in the news release.

The researchers were also thrilled to discover that by integrating light inside of plants they could see flickering patterns and behaviors of plant life that are typically hidden from the human eye. 

Beyond creating glowing bushes, learning about plant biology, and creating sustainable lighting, bioluminescence can offer deep insights into the workings of the human body as well.

“In terms of healthcare, this means that we could have animal disease models where bioluminescence would report physiological changes that can be monitored in real time non-invasively,” explains Sarkisyan. 

The research was conducted in conjunction with Planta, a Russian biotech startup whose goal is to create self-luminous ornamental plants, as well as the Institute of Science and Technology Austria. The study was published in Nature Biotechnology.

According to Horizon Magazine, scientists are not only dreaming of the day when bioluminescence can help understand illness, they are already discovering ways this plant technology can assist with medical applications.

From light fixtures and ornamental plants to medicine, it is truly remarkable what bioluminescence can teach and offer to the world. When one looks at the natural world with inspiration and amazement, she looks right back – and she may soon be lighting up driveways, too. 

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HILLA BENZAKEN, CONTRIBUTOR
Hilla Benzaken is a dedicated optimist. Her happy place involves cooking, acting, gardening, and fighting for social justice. She writes about all things sustainability, innovation, and DIY.