Glowing trees could one day replace electric lighting

MIT engineers have successfully induced a watercress plant to give off dim light for nearly four hours, by embedding specialised nanoparticles into its leaves.

“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,” said MIT professor of chemical engineering Dr Michael Strano.

An enzyme called luciferase was used that, when acting on a molecule called luciferin, gives fireflies their glow. 

While the plant leaves are currently treated through immersion in a solution, the researchers aim to establish a way to paint or spray the nanoparticles on directly.

This could make it possible to transform trees into self-powered street lights.

“Plants can self-repair, they have their own energy, and they are already adapted to the outdoor environment. We think this is an idea whose time has come,” said Dr Strano.

“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].

“Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.”

Plant nanobionics, a new research area pioneered by Dr Strano’s lab, intends to engineer plants to replace many electrical devices, having previously designed plants that can detect explosives and communicate that information to a smartphone.

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