Ornamental house plants with sustainably glowing leaves and flowers are now one step closer to reality, thanks to a breakthrough in which scientists leveraged the bioluminescent powers of mushrooms.
Glowing plants are nothing new, as scientists have previously achieved this by using bioluminescent genes found in bacteria. Trouble is, these plants don’t glow very brightly, which is probably why they haven’t caught on.
New research published today in Nature Biotechnology describes a new technique, in which the DNA from bioluminescent mushrooms was used to create plants that glow 10 times brighter than their bacteria-powered precursors. Botanists could eventually use this technique to study the inner workings of plants, but it also introduces the possibility of glowing ornamental plants for our homes.
The new study, led by Karen Sarkisyan and Ilia Yampolsky from the Russian Academy of Sciences, describes tobacco plants that were genetically modified to express a recently discovered bioluminescent system found in mushrooms. Tobacco was chosen because these plants are genetically simple and grow quickly, but the new technique should work in other plant species as well.
Key to the process is an organic molecule called caffeic acid, which is found in all plants. Two enzymes convert the caffeic acid into a luminescent precursor, which was then treated with a third enzyme, producing an oxidised molecule capable of shooting out photons, that is, light. Incredibly, the plants produced around 10 billion photons per minute at wavelengths that peaked between 500 and 550 nanometres (the green range of the visible light spectrum). Plants and mushrooms are not closely related, but the researchers leveraged a metabolic process compatible to both.
This resulted in self-sustaining bioluminescent plants, in which the plants produced their own glow without the introduction of foreign biochemicals. They glowed continuously throughout their life cycles, and the modification didn’t seem to harm their normal development and health. The glowing could be seen with the naked eye, appearing in leaves, stems, roots, and flowers of the bioengineered plants.
The breakthrough could provide scientists with a new way of observing the inner workings of plants, such as monitoring their glow to study a plant’s metabolism. Interestingly, young plants glowed more brightly than older ones, and flowers turned out to be the most luminous part. Sometimes, the glows ebbed and flowed in patterns, hinting at unknown internal processes.
Excitingly, these plants could also be used for ornamental purposes. And indeed, that’s exactly what these scientists are thinking, as the research has spun off into a new company called Light Bio. The project itself was partly funded by Planta LLC, a biotech startup headquartered in Moscow, so commercial implications were very much in mind from the get-go. Other financial contributors included the Russian Science Foundation and the Skolkovo Foundation. A total of 27 contributors are listed as authors on the new paper.
The study was conducted on tobacco plants, but species like periwinkle, petunia, and rose could be modified in the same way, according to the researchers. Looking ahead, the scientists would like to make the plants even brighter and possibly even able to respond to people and surroundings.