Thanks to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), it could be possible in the future to use urban greenery for illuminating the surroundings. Even urban rooftop farms could likely attract still further interest on warm summer nights if some of the plants are glowing. Bioluminescent plants are maybe able to replace power-eating lighting systems to a certain extent. Nonetheless, it will take quite some time. However, the first prototypes are already functioning successfully and strong enough to illuminate a book with the support of a reflective paper front.
Unfortunately, it is not possible so far to create natural bioluminescent plants which are able to produce their own fluorescent elements. To let the plants shine, researchers from MIT injected specific nanoparticles with a diameter of 10 nanometers into the leaves of a watercress plant. As a result, the watercress can produce four hours dim light. Further improvements could lead to higher luminous power and a longer lighting duration – maybe enough to illuminate a workplace one day.
MIT Applied Three Components to Create Bioluminescent Plants
“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself,” says Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and the senior author of the study.
The MIT team used nanoparticles carrying three different components. Luciferase is needed to let the molecule luciferin shine. A third molecule removes a reaction byproduct which is able to block the activity of luciferase. Allegedly, the concentration is not high enough to make the plant toxic.
“Plants can self-repair, they have their own energy, and they are already adapted to the outdoor environment,” Strano says. “We think this is an idea whose time has come. It’s a perfect problem for plant nanobionics.”
To inject the nanoparticles, the plants were dipped in a particular solution and then exposed to very high pressure. In this way, the particles in the solution can enter through small stomata pores on the surface. The researchers hope to replace this complex technical process by a painting or spraying method to make it suitable for routine applications.
“Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant,” Strano says. “Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.”