Anyone who has seen the glow of fireflies on a warm summer night can’t help but be fascinated by the mystery and wonder of the natural world. We are used to the electric lights that light up our world at night, but the thought of plants and animals lighting up may seem to some as something only found in science fiction movies. You may be surprised to learn that bioluminescence is fairly common in nature and occurs in many organisms including marine vertebrates and invertebrates, fungi, algae, bacteria, and fireflies.
The process by which this happens is a chemical reaction involving two chemicals called luciferin and luciferase. Luciferase is an enzyme which binds to luciferin and oxygen and produces energy that is released as light. This light is known as cold light, which means that less than 20% of the light generates thermal radiation, or heat.
One organism that does not glow are plants, but don’t worry, scientists are working on fixing that. Antony Evans and his team are using synthetic biology to transfer the glowing gene from a marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri to the plant Arabidopsis, which is a small flowering plant in the same family as cabbage and mustard. Arabidopsis is used as a model organism in plant research because it is the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced.
The process by which these scientists are transferring genes is called transformation, and is done by isolating a gene, in this case a glowing gene, and inserting it into the plant by using a gene gun or Agrobacterium tumefaciens . A. tumefaciens is a soil dwelling bacteria that is very efficient at inserting its own DNA into plant cells.
This is not the first time scientists have attempted to create a glow in the dark plant. The first bioluminescent plant was a tobacco plant, and was created in 1986 with the help of firefly luciferine.
Antony and his team have raised enough money to do more research on their glowing plants to increase the luminosity. Their goal is to someday use plants to replace electric lighting.
The technology of moving genes from one organism to another that does not happen in nature is known as genetically modification, and is a very controversial subject. The issues caused by genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are case by case issues, and each one is examined separately to distinguish the risks and benefits. Antony and his team point out that creating glowing plants is quite safe because the glowing feature does not give the plant an advantage, this is because light production takes extra energy and weakens the plant. So the chances of this plant getting out into nature and become a glowing noxious weed are very slim and the plant is not likely to survive without human intervention.
These glowing plants are not available to the public quite yet, but you can visit Glowingplant.com to pre-order you glowing plant seeds or get a T-shirt with an image of a glowing plant to help fund this extraordinary project.