Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have devised “nanobionic” plants that glow in dim light. One day, such plants may be used to replace some electrical lighting and help reduce humanity’s dependence on fossil fuels.
MIT Scientists Use Nature to Replace Electrical Lighting
While bioluminescent animals like fireflies are not uncommon, bioluminescent plants have so far been the province of science fiction movies. Previous attempts at creating bioluminescent plants involved using genetic engineering to add the appropriate genes from fireflies or bacteria to the plants’ DNA. This is a complicated process that until now has only had limited success.
Dr. Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT and senior author, pioneered a new field called “plant nanobionics”. In this, researchers embed nanoparticles within plants to give them new features. Dr. Strano and his team have been working on creating nanobionic plants that could perform functions currently fulfilled by electronic devices.
So far, they have designed plants that can monitor droughts, plus plants that can detect explosives and send the information to a smartphone.
Dr. Strano’s team decided to create plants that could produce their own light to eventually supplant electrical lighting. This currently consumes about 20 percent of the world’s electricity. The team used luciferase, an enzyme linked to firefly bioluminescence.
A reaction with a molecule called luciferin produces light. A second molecule called co-enzyme A removes a reaction byproduct that can inhibit the luciferase.
The researchers put the three components into nanoparticle carriers that they then inserted into the leaves of watercress plants. At first, the plants glowed for only 45 minutes, but they can now glow for about 3.5 hours.
The team has experimented with other plants as well. They have successfully induced glowing in spinach, kale, and arugula. The plants currently emit dim light, but Dr. Strano believes that scientists can engineer plants that produce stronger light.
This was a US Department of Energy-funded research, and the American Chemical Society’s journal, Nano Letters, published a report in their December 13 issue.
According to the MIT team, they are hoping to develop a method of painting or spraying luminescent nanoparticles onto larger plants or trees that could then be used as streetlamps. They are also working with a luciferase inhibitor that would act as a switch. This would help turn the light off when it isn’t needed anymore.
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