Thursday, May 9, 2013

Will bioluminescent trees replace streetlights?

Bioluminescent Trees Courtesy Alberto T. Estevez

Imagine taking a midnight stroll, your route lit by row upon row of trees glowing a ghostly blue. If work by a team of undergraduates at the University of Cambridge pans out, bioluminescent trees could one day be giving our streets this dreamlike look. The students have taken the first step on this road by developing genetic tools that allow bioluminescence traits to be easily transferred into an organism.
Nature is full of glow-in-the-dark critters, but their shine is feeble - far too weak to read by, for example. To boost this light, the team, who were participating in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM), modified genetic material from fireflies and the luminescent marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri to boost the production and activity of light-yielding enzymes. They then made further modifications to create genetic components or "BioBricks" that can be inserted into a genome.
The team managed to produce a range of colours by putting these genes into the Escherichia coli bacterium. They found that a volume of bacterial culture about the size of a regular wine bottle gave off enough light to read by.
"We didn't end up making bioluminescent trees, which was the inspiration for the project," says team member Theo Sanderson, who is studying genetics. "But we decided to make a set of parts that would allow future researchers to use bioluminescence more effectively." The team presented its findings earlier this month at the iGEM Jamboree, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
One major obstacle to harnessing bioluminescence is that the process relies on a class of compounds called luciferins. They emit light and are then converted into oxyluciferin, which cannot produce light. To counter this, the Cambridge team found a way to engineer BioBricks that would enable organisms to produce enzymes to recycle oxyluciferin.
Bioluminescent plants could appeal especially to people whose homes are not wired up to the electricity grid. These living lights have no breakable parts, and new lights can be made simply by growing more of them. The team calculates that for a bioluminescent tree to compete with a street light, only 0.02 per cent of the energy absorbed for photosynthesis would need to be diverted into light production.
So are glowing trees coming soon to a street near you? It's unlikely, says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, a designer and artist who advised the Cambridge team. "We already have light bulbs," she says. "We're not going to spend our money and time engineering a replacement for something that works very well."
However, she adds that "bio-light" has a distinctive allure. "There's something much more visceral about a living light. If you have to feed the light and look after it, then it becomes more precious."


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. The idea and research of genetic transformed trees for urban and domestic use was started in 2003 by Prof. Alberto T. Estévez, with his Genetic Architectures Research Group of UIC Barcelona (Universitat Internacional de Catalunya), as it can be seen since 2005 in a lot of publications, for example: “Genetic Barcelona Project”, Metalocus, n. 017, p. 162-165, Madrid (Spain), Fall, 2005; “Genetic Barcelona Project: Cultural and lighting implications”, in Urban Nightscape 2006, p. 86-88, International Commission on Illumination, Athens (Greece), 2006; “The genetic creation of bioluminescent plants for urban and domestic use”, Leonardo, vol. 40, n. 1, p. 18 and 46, The MIT Press, San Francisco-California / Cambridge-Massachussets (USA), February, 2007; etc. :)