How to Make Glowing Plants

May 24, 2013

3:00 pm

If you want to make a plant glow in the dark, you have to manipulate its DNA.

That’s exactly what a couple of PhDs from California have been doing for the past eight months. Omri Amirav-Drory and Kyle Taylor started with genes from A. fischeri, a bacteria can glow. They’ve added promoters, little bits of instructions in the genome. And the next step is printing the DNA.

DNA printers use lasers, lining up countless molecules of adenosine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine according to your instructions. Then it gets shipped to you in the mail. But this process is expensive, which is why Glowing Plant has turned to Kickstarter to raise $65,000 – and collected almost $400,000 in the process (so far).

Many supporters are probably excited about the implications for energy and the environment. They imagine streets and highways lit by trees, rather than streetlights – miles and miles of true “natural lighting” running across the country and the world. And the little consequences would be no less enchanting: no searching for flashlights when the lights go out; some romantic mood lighting; and a reliable source of electricity for the third world.

But first, the team has to see if it works. Once they receive the DNA at their lab in Sunnyvale, they will add it into something called “agrobacteria.” These are special bacteria that can insert their own DNA into other organisms – “nature’s genetic engineers,” explains cofounder Antony Evans.

If that works, they can start inserting genes into the Arabidopsis plant with something appropriately called a “gene gun.” Glowing Plant has been in contact with the USDA, who says they won’t regulate these glowing plants if the gene gun is used. (The USDA is mostly concerned with protecting agriculture, making sure that genetically engineered plants don’t interfere with pest populations or pose a threat to human health.) Then they wait: for the seeds to grow, for the plant to emerge, and for the result to (hopefully) live up to our glow-in-the-dark-plant expectations.

The field of synthetic biology, and even glowing plants, is nothing new. The first glowing plant lit up in 1986 thanks to the addition of luciferin, a compound that emits light when it reacts with the enzyme luciferase. In 2010, a team from the State University of New York was able to create dimly glowing plants. At it was a team at the University of Cambridge, who worked on glowing bacteria, who came up with the idea of trees-as-streetlights.

Synthetic biology is easier than ever today, as the cost of printing DNA is falling and groups like BioCurious are opening their doors to wanna-be biologists. Just this month, biologists at MIT turned cells into living calculators that can divide and do square roots. Making a plant glow is, in fact, not particularly innovative.

“What we’re doing is definitely not on the cutting-edge,” says Evans. “We’re just taking some well-established protocols and procedures and putting them together in a lab.”

As for glowing trees, that would be innovative. The problem is that trees take so long to grow, and what works for a sapling won’t necessarily work for a full-grown tree. And if your experiment fails, you have to start all over.

In other words, we may not be replacing streetlights anytime soon, but that goal is a beautiful beacon to light the path forward.

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Kira M. Newman is a Tech Cocktail writer interested in the harsh reality of entrepreneurship, work-life balance, and psychology. She is the founder of The Year of Happy and has been traveling around the world interviewing entrepreneurs in Asia, Europe, and North America since 2011. Follow her @kiramnewman or contact kira@tech.co.

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