A tobacco plant that glows in the dark

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Copy of st DESIGN-GLOW151 SLATE Artist's rendering: The alien greenish glow researchers at Bioglow aim to achieve as they learn to enhance the light-emitting capabilities of genetically engineered plants. Picture: Dan Saunders/Bioglow

Washington - Glowing plants – as seen in the fantastical flora of the 2009 sci-fi film Avatar – are no longer just a special effect.

Molecular biologist Alexander Krichevsky of St Louis-based biotech company Bioglow has developed the Starlight Avatar, a genetically modified tobacco plant that glows in the dark, as a first step towards a world in which one day our highways and homes may be lit not with electricity but with the luminescent glow of plant life.

“There are no naturally occurring glowing or bioluminescent plants in nature,” Krichevsky said in an e-mail. “While there are a number of various glowing species – fireflies, glowworms, glowing fish, etc – there are no glowing plants. Starlight Avatar is the first one.”

Ostensibly “bioluminescent” plants had existed for about 20 years, mostly for research purposes, Krichevsky said.

“These plants, however, needed to be sprayed with chemicals to achieve a temporary and weak glowing effect, or be illuminated by UV lights,” he wrote, noting that the light emitted by such plants was often not visible to the human eye and needed to be observed with special cameras.

“Starlight Avatar – the first autoluminescent plant – glows on its own (no chemicals or UV lights needed) and is visible to a human eye with minimal adaptation time. The light emission is integral and natural to the plant, same as it is for fireflies, and will continue through plant’s life cycle and from generation to generation.”

Copy of sa DESIGN-GLOW152 Starlight Avatar, a genetically modified tobacco plant, by daylight, left; and glowing in darkness. Picture: Bioglow SLATE

The Starlight Avatar was developed from an ornamental species of tobacco plant that, when modified using genetic material from glowing marine bacteria, autonomously produces a dim ambient glow that Krichevsky says is reminiscent of starlight – although its bluish-green hue is not the most flattering to the human complexion.

Bioglow’s website says while the plant took years of research, the company plans to continue working to increase light output and hopes to develop warmer yellow and red-toned light that would ostensibly be more suitable for home use, as well as perhaps one day creating flowers whose petals would glow in different colours from the plant’s leaves, or plants that could light up to signal changes in pollution levels or other environmental stressors.

Bioglow is not the only company developing this kind of technology. A recent Kickstarter campaign that inspired backers with the poetic promise of glow-in-the-dark greenery raised $484 000 (about R5.25 million) – substantially more than its $65 000 goal – to develop seeds for glow-in-the-dark plants, sparking a controversial debate about the risks of dispersing genetically modified seeds among the public.

That led Kickstarter to amend its rules to include the stipulation that “projects cannot offer genetically modified organisms as a reward”.

Krichevsky said Bioglow was holding an online auction of 20 Starlight Avatar plants for those in the US curious to see the luminescent wonders. A green thumb may come in especially handy because at this early stage the Starlight Avatar is suited only to indoor use and has a lifespan of two to three months, shorter than your average eco-bulb. – Slate / The Washington Post News Service


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