MIT scientists borrow from fireflies to make glowing plants

Scientists develop plants that glow

A group of MIT engineers is working into a type of nanobionic trees that could son replace streetlights. They've been promised by Kickstarter campaigns for years, including the likes of Bioglow and Glowing Plants, but those startups have since gone bust.

"The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp - a lamp that you don't have to plug in", says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and senior author of the study.

Pot plants have never been more on trend.

The team specializes in what is now called plant nanobionics and have previously designed plants able to detect explosives and monitor drought conditions.

In their study, researchers tweaked an enzyme that enables fireflies to emit light, luciferase.

If the latest experiment is successful, around 20 percent of the planet's energy consumption could be saved. The researchers are optimistic that they'll be able to make brighter plants soon, and they're hoping to adapt their current method of embedding the proteins-which involves soaking the leaves in a high-pressure solution filled with nanoparticles-into some kind of spray-on coating or paint.

Illumination of a book ("Paradise Lost", by John Milton) with the nanobionic light-emitting plants (two 3.5-week-old watercress plants).

The MIT team packaged each of these three components into a different type of nanoparticle carrier. "Another molecule called co-enzyme A helps the process along by removing a reaction byproduct that can inhibit luciferase activity", it said.

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.

In the study published in the journal Nano Letters, the researchers used silica nanoparticles about 10 nanometres in diameter to carry luciferase, and they used slightly larger particles of the polymers PLGA and chitosan to carry luciferin and coenzyme A, respectively. As the luciferin is released from its particles, it too enters the cells and reacts with the luciferase, creating the glowing effect.

The researchers believe they can improve this reaction to the point that light-up plants can illuminate entire rooms.

In other words, MIT researchers want to turn the glowing shrub into a desk lamp, and trees into streetlights that don't need any external power source. According to The Atlantic, the Glowing Plant project recently shut up shop after running into some hurdles that they didn't foresee (even if skeptical scientists saw them coming).

They were able to create the glowing plants by inserting nanoparticles in the plants' leaves.

"Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes", Strano explains.

You can check out the glowing plants in the video below.



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