Bioluminescent plants
Credit: PinguCommander via Flickr

A Kickstarter project seeks to replace traditional lighting in our streets by glowing plants, which would be produced by new advances in synthetic biology and genetic engineering.

What is bioluminescence?

Bioluminescence is a skill that has been developed by a variety of organisms. There are several agents needed for this chemical reaction to occur: a protein called luciferin, the luciferase enzyme, molecular oxygen and ATP (adenosine triphosphate), a substance capable of generating the energy required for the reaction (it is in fact the form under which energy is stored in our bodies).

The process is as follows: oxygen oxidizes luciferin, luciferase accelerates the reaction and ATP provides the energy for it to become a new substance (oxidized luciferin). In this latter process, the excess energy is released as light. This light is very intense and the brightness is concentrated in a small area of the animal/microorganism, making it very noticeable in dark nights.

The whole reaction occurs in less than one millisecond and is maintained as long as the body remains excited. In different species of animals, the chemical composition of luciferase and luciferins varies, producing different colors.

Colors that can be observed range from green to blue, which is more common, as its wavelength is the one which is transmitted further into the water. Red or amber are also produced in some of them, although to a lesser extent since red is rapidly absorbed in the water and very few marine organisms have the ability to perceive that color.

Unlike most chemical reactions, which produce heat as a byproduct, this one generates sufficient light to be detected. However, although the chemical structure of the luciferins involved is different depending on the organism to which they belong, the chemical reaction in all cases is very similar.

Bioluminescent plants - an energy-saving solution for the future?

Creating bioluminescent plants that work as lamps in our cities could be a reality sooner rather than later. Thanks to an initiative on Kickstarter, scientists seek to replace the medium to long-term illumination obtained from electricity consumption with a much more efficient system that would be based on synthetic biology, genetic engineering and biotechnology.

All living being store in their DNA the genetic instructions necessary for their development. We call genome the whole set of genes of a given organism. Since about forty years, we are able to manipulate the genome of different beings in a controlled manner in the laboratory, through specific techniques of genetic engineering and advances in biotechnology. Genetic modification has been done for thousands of years by uncontrolled techniques, such as self-selection of certain crops or stocks fundamental to agriculture and livestock (see Chihuahua).

The proposal available at Kickstarter, made by the team of Amirav-Drory, Evans and Taylor is based on genetic engineering techniques, which incorporate advances in synthetic biology itself. To do this, they intend to research a type of bacteria that can be fluorescent (called Vibrio fischeri, which is a 'cousin' of the organism causing cholera), and that previous research has mapped to identify which genes might be of interest. They have also described a particular part of the genome of the bacteria in study that will be used as a tool to genetically manipulate the plants subsequently.

The project is based on work previously promoted at the University of Cambridge. One of the pioneers of this initiative debates in his blog whether it would be feasible to develop bioluminescent plants, in other words, to be able to have genetically modified plants glow without electricity.

Although the author of this entry is skeptical about the idea of the ​​Americans, he is surprised by the work done, and for the fantastic inspiration and dissemination of the project, which has achieved by now the impressive level of funding of 258,000 british pounds, instead of the 65,000 that were originally requested. This is a good proof that part of society is interested in science, and that these initiatives can partly help democratize scientific projects.

If the work finally goes ahead, as it seems, the team will focus first on obtaining a fluorescent Arabidopsis thaliana plant. If they get even more funding, they will work on developing bioluminescent roses. Although the initiative is based on a project of 1986 to create a fluorescent plant, the truth is that it was not until 2010 (with the plant of tobacco) when the scientific results that would cause a revolution in plant biotechnology (which continues now) were confirmed.

These two plants (Arabidopsis plant and tobacco) have been used due to their easy manipulation by genetic engineering techniques and synthetic biology. To do this, in addition to routine laboratory techniques, in Kickstarter they also propose to use a specific software known as Genome Compiler. The genes required for bioluminescence would be put first in a bacterium known as Agrobacterium, which would then be responsible for transforming the plant species and thus get bioluminescent plants.

Advances in biology can help solve major problems of today's society, like our excessive electricity consumption, by reducing the CO2 emissions and thus fighting climate change. Therefore, this initiative aims to completely revolutionize science and modern technology. Although as stated in the blog that we cited earlier, it is likely that plants designed and created now have a low fluorescence level to serve as lighting tools. It will take more years to reach that level, but this is certainly a great (kick)start.

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