Can you imagine using a plant instead of a light bulb to light up a room? Or a tree to light up a street instead of a lamp post? These inspiring, sustainability-focused ideas were what the Glowing Plant Project used to raise public support in creating plants that glow. And not just simply glow — the plants would ideally produce as much light as light bulbs. The idea was to make plants work as substitutes for electricity-requiring light sources.
Last summer, the small Glowing Plant company raised nearly $500,000 (much more than their goal of $65,000) through Kickstarter to make the glowing plants, and it has been working on creating these plants since then. The main species of plant being used is Arabidopsis thaliana, which is a small flowering plant that belongs to the mustard family. (It’s commonly used in scientific laboratories, making it well-studied.) A glowing rose is also in the works. How are these plants made to glow? They’re essentially forced to incorporate a glowing gene (taken from glowing bacteria) into their own genes.
The “stolen” glowing gene (i.e., bioluminescence gene) is specifically a Lux gene. Lux genes are from bacteria that naturally glow. To get the glowing gene into the Arabidopsis plants, the gene is put into a type of bacteria that’s good at inserting its genes into these plants — Agrobacterium. Specifically, the Agrobacterium is modified to have the glowing gene and then the flowers of an Arabidopsis plant are dipped into the modified Agrobacterium. These bacteria inject their genes into the plant and, ideally, the glowing gene incorporates itself in the cells of the flowers so that it ends up in the plant’s seeds. The modified seeds may then grow up to be modified, glowing Arabidopsis plants!
This process is called a “transformation.” (You can check out a video of how the DNA is designed to do this.) The Glowing Plant company had already designed the DNA to transform the plants to make them glow, but money was needed to make the DNA (by another company) and do the actual experiments using it to get the glowing gene into the plants. Once the glowing plants are successfully made, the company plans on making the glowing plants using a gene gun (instead of Agrobacterium) because this method is more suitable for making plants that will be released to people and not kept in a laboratory (based on feedback from the USDA).
For those interested, the plants can now be pre-ordered online.
The Glowing Plants company has attracted much interest in its novel efforts — last month, a venture capital firm, Y Combinator, backed the small company. Y Combinator had not previously backed a company in the life sciences area.
So while having glowing trees to light up dark streets and alleys might seem like a thing of science fiction, it may soon become a reality. And because a recent study showed that plants in the office boost productivity, there may be even more reasons to usher glowing plants in to light up the workplace!
For further reading:
- Glowing Plant’s webpage Glowing Plant: Natural Lighting without Electricity
- Bob Grant’s article “Glowing Plants Firm Gets Venture Backing“
- Marlon Nieuwenhuis et al.’s article “The Relative Benefits of Green Versus Lean Office Space: Three Field Expeirments”
- Teisha J. Rowland’s book Biology Bytes: Digestible Essays on Animals Both Commonplace and Bizarre