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Engineers Create Glowing Plants That May Replace Lamps

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Scientists were able to create glow-in-the-dark plants, thanks to the same compound that makes fireflies glow. The glowing plants could help take over lighting functions, which are currently being done by electrical devices such as lamps and streetlights.

Plant Nanobionics

A team of researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) added glowing plants to their list of plant nanobionics projects, which currently include plants that can detect explosives and plants that can monitor drought conditions. With a goal to engineer plants that could one day perform the tasks of current electrical devices, the team's glowing plants targets the world's energy consumption on lighting.

To create their glowing plants, the researchers used luciferase, which is the very enzyme that causes fireflies to glow, and coenzyme A, which is a molecule that removes a reaction byproduct that could hinder luciferase activity.

Making A Plant Glow

To infuse the nanoparticles carrying luciferin, luciferase, and coenzyme A molecules into the plant leaves, researchers immersed the plants in the solution with the molecules and then exposed it to high pressure so that the molecules will enter the leaves through its pores called the stomata. Once inside the plant, luciferase can work to make the plant glow.

At the beginning of the project, researchers successfully created plants that could glow for up to 45 minutes, but they have been able to improve that time up to three and a half hours. So far, a 10-centimeter watercress plant could only create a small amount of light needed to be able to read, but researchers believe they can significantly improve both light brightness and duration by adjusting the concentration of the components.

A Future With Sustainable Lighting

Similar experiments have previously been done in an attempt to create glowing plants by means of gene editing, but apart from the fact that the process is quite laborious, the plants they used were limited whereas the luciferase method used by the researchers has so far worked on all types of plant that they tried it on, including spinach, arugula, and kale.

"Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant," said Michael S. Strano, professor of chemical engineering at MIT and senior author of the study.

The team's project could one day be used to create sustainable indoor lighting or to develop trees to become natural streetlights. This is especially significant today when artificial lighting has been seen to be problematic in terms of increasing breast cancer risk among women, disrupting night pollination of bees, and light pollution.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and is published in the journal Nano Letters.

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