From torches to halogen street lamps, we have been finding ways to illuminate the night for millennia. Now, with the help of a mushroom, perhaps someday the trees themselves may light our way. Using four genes that make a fungus glow-in-the-dark, a team of international scientists has engineered tobacco plants that emit green light, sparking whimsical imaginings for our future.
The research harnesses the ability for the mushroom Neonothopanus nambi to light up the night in its native Brazillian forests. Using a type of molecular machine called a luciferase enzyme, the fungus emits light as a byproduct of its metabolism. Luciferases are found in a number of different bioluminescent organisms (creatures that produce light), such as fireflies, plankton, and jellyfish. By engineering the glow-in-the-dark mushroom genes into a plant, scientists can create bioluminescent plants. Notably, this is not the first time scientists have made glow-in-the-dark plants. Previous approaches used luciferases from bacteria, but the molecular products were toxic to the plants. The fungal luciferase, on the other hand, acts in the caffeic acid cycle, a chemical cycle already found in all plants, and does not appear to harm the plant.
Besides potentially fulfilling the science fiction fantasies of glowing trees, like those shown in Avatar (2009), bioluminescent plant technology has the potential to advance our understanding of plant development and disease. Actively growing parts of the plant glow brighter than the baseline bioluminescence, whereas sites of injury resulted in decreased light emission. Furthermore, this new technology will allow researchers to measure plant metabolism in response to varying environmental stresses. Researchers also hope to bring bioluminescent house plants to the market (after thorough safety screening) to reduce electricity usage. And who knows, maybe someday soon, our streets will be illuminated by this green technology.
Managing Correspondent: Olivia Foster Rhoades
Original Scientific Articles: Plants with genetically encoded autoluminescence
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons