Nanobionic light-emitting watercress plants. Photo: MIT.

New research from MIT may, one day, lead to the replacement of public street lights with luminescent plants. 

According to a new report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, engineers have taken a critical first step towards making this vision a reality, experimenting with the idea that by making plants and trees glow brightly enough, the need for electricity would be drastically reduced.

If successful, MIT hopes the that its growing flora could help to cut back on power usage, emissions and costs, as well as providing low-intensity indoor lighting, or to transform trees into self-powered streetlights.

How it came about

Researchers made some headway into their experiment by embedding specialised nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress plant. The nanoparticles induced the test plants to give off a dim light for almost four hours!

MIT professor of chemical engineering Michael Strano said the vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp – one that you don’t need to plug in.

“The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself,” he said.

“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. It’s a perfect problem for plant nanobionics.”

Creating the glowing plants

The MIT team turned to luciferase. Luciferase is an enzyme that, when acting on a molecule called luciferin, gives fireflies their glow. Another molecule called ‘co-enzyme A’ helps this process along by removing a reaction byproduct that can inhibit luciferase activity.

MIT’s team then packaged these two components into a different type of nanoparticle carrier, which were designed to help each component get to the right part of the plant.

The group’s goal is to engineer plants to take over many of the functions currently performed by electrical devices.

Today, lighting accounts for about 20% of worldwide energy consumption.

For future versions of this technology, the researchers hope to develop a way to paint or spray the nanoparticles onto plant leaves, which could make it possible to transform trees and other large plants into light sources.

“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 said.

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

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