MIT Creates Glowing Plants to Replace Electric Lights

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You probably reach for the light switch when it gets dark, but researchers from MIT are working on technology that could make houseplants your new desk lamp. The team created nanoparticles containing the same enzymes that make fireflies glow and embedded them in the leaves of watercress plants. The result was a plant that emits an eerie yellow-green glow. The researchers say this is just the start, though.

The glowing plants are an application of “nanobionics,” an area of research created by MIT chemical engineering professor Michael Strano and senior author of the study. The aim of nanobionics is to imbue plants with new capabilities by way of specialized nanoparticles. In this case, the nanoparticles of varying sizes contained three compounds: luciferase, luciferin, and co-enzyme A.

Luciferase is an enzyme composed of amino acids like any other protein, and it doesn’t actually produce any light. It oxidizes the luciferin molecules, causing them to produce light as they decay back to their ground state. The co-enzyme A in the nanoparticles is there to clear out reactant byproducts that can inhibit the interaction of luciferase and luciferin.

After packaging up the nanoparticles, the team suspended them in a solution. The plants were submerged in that solution and subjected to high pressure. That caused the nanoparticles to diffuse into the plants. Over time, the nanoparticles release molecules into the plant where they are taken up by the cells. Once inside the cells, luciferase and luciferin do what they’d do anywhere else — they glow.

Previous efforts to produce light-emitting plants have relied upon expensive and complicated genetic engineering. Having plants create their own luciferase is better for long-term functionality, but the light produced by such processes is extremely dim and it’ll only work for select plants with well-understood genomes. The nanobionics approach yields brighter light, and it’s simple to do.

At the start of this project, the test plants would only glow for about 45 minutes, but that has been improved to more than three and a half hours. The researchers believe they can extend that time in the future, as well as increase the brightness. It’ll have to get about 1,000 times brighter to allow you to comfortably read a book by plant light. The goal is to make the plants bright enough to illuminate a room with nanoparticles that last the lifetime of the plant.

The researchers see this technology as a way to save energy on lighting. Not only could your desk lamp be replaced by a plant, but trees lining the street could become streetlights.

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