Glow in the dark plants are here, and they're changing everything we know about light!
Imagine reading a book in the night under the light cast by glowing plants instead of turning on your lamp by the bedside.
The day has finally arrived when nature prevails and scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are responsible for taking a critical first step in this direction.
Foliage that illuminates the darkness without the need of electricity! Imagine trees emitting light, as the sun casts its final shadows upon us. This could indeed be our reality if this new research pans out, lending a new definition to the term 'green energy' while simultaneously symbolizing it.
The MIT team, funded by the US Department of Energy, fused kale, watercress, arugula, and spinach with luciferase. This chemical triggered the plants to emit a dim light for nearly four hours using teh same process that causes fireflies to emit their characteristic shine.
The light is only as bright as a nightlight, but once the chemical reaction sets in, it can glow for up to three to four hours.
The enzyme luciferase acts on a molecule called luciferin, causing the dim glow. Fireflies are able to emit light caused by a chemical reaction in which luciferin is converted to oxyluciferin by the luciferase enzyme.
Another molecule called Co-enzyme A also helps with the process by removing a reaction byproduct that can obstruct any activity performed by luciferase.
The scientists also demonstrated a way to force plants to shut off their luminous emissions, using certain nanoparticles containing luciferase inhibitors. This can eventually help the plants to turn their lights off in response to environmental settings, such as sunlight.
Packaging each of these three components onto an entirely different nanoparticle carrier, made up of materials the U.S Food and Drug Administration generally regards as safe, the engineers made sure each component gets to the right part of the plant. They also make sure components don't rise to a level as being toxic to the plants.
By embedding nanoparticles into its leaves, soaking them in a solution full of these particles and exposing them to high pressures, scientists managed to induce the plant to give out a glowing light.
This technique comes from plant nanobionics – a new field of research aimed at granting plants novel features by embedding in them different varieties of nanoparticles. This research was started by Michael Strano's lab.
The goal here is for plants to take over the many functions now being performed by electrical devices. Earlier research conducted by the group resulted in designing plants that could monitor drought conditions, detect explosives and communicate the same onto a smartphone.
Plants have their own energy and can thus repair themselves. It also helps as they are already adapted to the environment, says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study. It's an idea that has long been overdue and its time has finally come.
Strano believes this is the perfect problem for plant nanobionics to solve.
“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself,” as said by Michael Strano.
Lighting counts for up to 20% of worldwide energy consumption, so using naturally bioluminescent plants could go a long way in cutting CO2 emissions.
While this is still in its initial stage, the MIT team has lofty ambitions for the use of these plants in the future.
"Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant," said Professor Strano.
This research is a whole new approach that has been undertaken by Strano and his team. Rather than meddling with the plant's DNA, the idea here is to dip them into solutions engineered by nanoparticles by way of combining the fuel processed from the sugar inside a plant's cell, allowing it to cast a dim glow.
Strano has gone as far as to acknowledge the fact that the light emitted from a plant may not beat that of a task light. However, clusters of glowing trees can cast a glow equivalent to an ambient low-light setting.
He has teamed up with Sheila Kennedy of MIT’s architecture department to come up with ways to integrate light-emitting plants in buildings and outdoor spaces.
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