MIT Engineers Have Developed Plants That Glow In the Dark

A book Paradise Lost illuminated with nanobionic light-emitting watercress plants developed at MIT

Seon-Yeong Kwak A book Paradise Lost illuminated with nanobionic light-emitting watercress plants developed at MIT

The luminous properties can be achieved by embedding specialized nanoparticles into the leaves, which can glow for almost four hours.

"The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp - a lamp that you don't have to plug in", said senior study author Michael Strano, Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT.

Scientists have managed to take a step towards realising the ultimate goal of developing plants that glow by embedding specialized nanoparticles into leaves to induce the plant to give off dim light for almost four hours.

If the study comes to such fruition, the glowing plants could be useful in reducing our carbon footprint and power demands in cities worldwide - pegged at 20 percent of worldwide energy usage - as well as look rather spectacular.

The work comes from the same "plant nanobionics" team that recently designed explosive-detecting spinach and leaf sensors that can alert farmers at the first sign of thirsty crops.

In their study, researchers tweaked an enzyme that enables fireflies to emit light, luciferase.

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They submerged the plants in a solution containing silica nanoparticles that carried luciferase, luciferin and coenzyme A, and then applied pressure so that the solution could enter the leaves. "Another molecule called co-enzyme A helps the process along by removing a reaction byproduct that can inhibit luciferase activity", it said. The nanoparticles enter the leaf through the plant's stomata, or microscopic pores, which Strano has already used to in order to get plants to predict droughts. Researchers are experimenting with watercress plants in which they embedded nanoparticles in amounts that are not toxic to the plant.

Particles releasing luciferin and coenzyme A were created to accumulate in the extracellular space of the mesophyll, an inner layer of the leaf, while the smaller particles carrying luciferase enter the cells that make up the mesophyll.

The researchers' early efforts at the start of the project yielded plants that could glow for about 45 minutes, which they have since improved to 3.5 hours. According to The Atlantic, the Glowing Plant project recently shut up shop after running into some hurdles that they didn't foresee (even if skeptical scientists saw them coming).

"Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps which are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes". They plan to spray or paint the nanoparticles on leaves with future emphasis.

You can check out the glowing plants in the video below.

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