Scientists develop plants that glow

Henrietta Brewer
December 14, 2017

What's more, plants can generate energy through their natural metabolic processes, can self-repair, and can be easily adapted to outdoors scenarios. Engineers have hacked watercress plants to make them glow for a few hours at a time, and while it's now only about as bright as those old stars you might have stuck to your ceiling as a kid, the long-term plan is to develop plants that you could read by to reduce the need for electric lighting.

A team of engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) led by scholar Seon-Yeong Kwak has made a critical first breakthrough in their attempt to source light from plants.

To make them glow, the scientists embedded specially-designed nanoparticles into the leaves of watercress plants. They think that, such plants may become one day the bright enough for illuminating a workspace.

Scientists develop plants that glow

For future versions of this technology, the team hopes to develop a way to paint or spray the nanoparticles onto plant leaves, which could make it possible to transform trees and other large plants into light sources.

A research paper detailing the experiment appeared this week in Nano Letters.

The researchers' early efforts at the start of the project yielded plants that could glow for about 45 minutes, which they have since improved to 3.5 hours. The group's goal is to engineer plants to take over numerous functions now performed by electrical devices. In a previous experiment, plants were tweaked to detect explosives and beam that data to a smartphone.


Lighting accounts for around 20 per cent of worldwide energy consumption, so replacing them with naturally bioluminescent plants would represent a significant cut to Carbon dioxide emissions.

MIT researchers investigating plant nanobionics have succeeded in engineering a plant that can emit light.

"Luciferase acts on a molecule called luciferin, causing it to emit light".


Fireflies get their glow through the interaction between an enzyme called luciferase and a molecule called luciferin, so both of these were added.

The nanoparticles help them to get to the right part of the plant and also prevent them from building to concentrations that could be toxic to the plants. The luciferin and coenzyme A were packaged inside polymer nanoparticles that enter and build up in an inner layer of the leaf, while the luciferase was contained inside much smaller silica nanoparticles, allowing them to enter the plant cells. The particles were suspended in a solution and the plant then immersed in that solution under high pressure, which enabled the particles to enter the leaves through pores called stomata.


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