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Bioluminescent plants could be the sustainable light source of the future

Bioluminescent plants could be the sustainable light source of the future

Indoor lighting: can't live with it, can't live without it. On one hand, lighting is expensive, costing on average $1,400 dollars per household per year, plus it's bad for the environment, accounting for about 20% of worldwide energy consumption. Lighting can even be unhealthy, as staring at bright lights all day causes permanent retinal damage. On the other hand, lighting is a necessary and unavoidable feature of modern life. We use it for almost everything. Simply put, it's not going away anytime soon. Because lighting is both so ubiquitous and so problematic, scientists have long been focused on finding less troublesome ways of producing light (LED bulbs, for example, are more energy efficient). Recently researchers at MIT have discovered another way of sourcing light, one that doesn't involve lightbulbs or even electricity.

Scientists in the relatively new field of plant nanobiotics have successfully developed a technique to make plants emit low-intensity lighting using nanoparticles containing the chemicals that make fireflies glow, chemicals like "luciferase" and "luciferin." The technology has not quite reached the point where bioluminescent plants can replace traditional lighting—so far they don't retain their glow long enough to replace traditional light sources. There is reason to be optimistic, however. When the project began in 2015 researchers could only keep plants lit for forty-five minutes. By 2017 they were able to make spinach, kale, and watercress plants emit light for four hours. "The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don't have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself," says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study.

Another group of researchers have been developing a type of bioluminescence, one that doesn't use nanobiotics or luminescent chemicals. The second group of researchers published their findings in February of 2020. They discovered naturally occurring bioluminescence in certain varieties of mushrooms. They were able to isolate and transfer DNA sequences from the mushrooms into a number of plants, and, unlike with MIT's bionanic luminescence, these genetically modified bioluminescent plants retain their glow for their entire life cycle. The scientists have even found methods of making the plants grow ten times brighter than the initial amount. Further experiments will involve transferring the DNA into more types of plants, and changing the color of the light, it's brightness, and even having the light respond to surroundings.

If advancements in plant bioluminescence continue, we may soon be trading our book lamps and night lights for glow-in-the-dark petunias or bushels of kale.

Watch this video from MIT below to learn more about bioluminescent plants:

Glowing plants

(MIT Explainer VIDEO:

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