Glowing plants: Are you ready to switch on the bedside shrub?

Paradise Lost by John Milton- is lit up by nanobionic watercress

Streetlights could be replaced by glowing trees, after scientists discovered how to make plants shine in the dark.

Engineers from MIT have already achieved the first step towards this - making plants glow. They think that, such plants may become one day the bright enough for illuminating a workspace. The main author of this study and the postdoctoral from MIT, Seon-Yeong Kwak published the study research in Nano Letters. The final goal is to breed plants that can take up all the functions of electrical lighting devices. The researchers have previously designed plants that can detect explosives and communicate that information to a smartphone, as well as plants that can monitor drought conditions. In this case, the researchers wanted to tackle lighting, which accounts for about 20 percent of energy consumption worldwide. The energy metabolism of the plant itself powers the light, according to Michael Strano. "It's a flawless problem for plant nano bionics".

In their study, researchers tweaked an enzyme that enables fireflies to emit light, luciferase. Another molecule called co-enzyme A helps the process along by removing a reaction by-product that can inhibit luciferase activity. Three different components were needed for the effect, each one placed inside a carrier nanoparticle. They also prevent the components from reaching concentrations that could be toxic to the plants. Those nanoparticles were then added to a solution the plant was submerged in and then exposed to high pressure which forces the nanoparticles into the leaves through the tiny stomata pores.

Particles releasing luciferin and coenzyme A were created to accumulate in the extracellular space of the mesophyll, an inner layer of the leaf, while the smaller particles carrying luciferase enter the cells that make up the mesophyll. After embedding both into the plants, particles start to release the luciferin into the cells and on the other hand, luciferase interacts with the chemical to create the glow. The illumination from these plants was one-thousandth of the amount of light we require to read.

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Although the new plants now don't glow any brighter than previous ones did, the MIT researchers say their method is simpler, and can be applied to essentially any type of plant.

So far, the technique has been successfully tested on watercress, arugula, kale, and spinach. Ideally, future work would see the soaking method replaced by a spray-on paint, allowing them to apply the glow to trees lining streets.

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

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