Monday Micro: living night lights

By Siouxsie Wiles 29/04/2013

One of the latest Kickstarter projects to create a buzz is promising its backers a living nightlight that shines without electricity. Enter the Glowing Plant project, developed by a group of biohackers from BioCurious* in California. Launched just a few days ago, Antony Evans, Omri Amirav-Drory and Kyle Taylor have already exceeded their $65,000 target needed to create a genetically engineered plant that glows in the dark. In fact, they have already passed the $115,000 mark with over a month left to go. Their new goal is $400,000 to create a glowing rose. Check out their short video by clicking the link below:

Glowing plant vid

So how are they going to do it? Back in 2010, Alexander Krichevsky and colleagues published a paper in PLOS One showing that tobacco plants could be engineered to glow in the dark by incorporating the genes (known as the lux operon) which make the marine bacterium Photobacterium leiognathi** glow (1). The light generated by one of the plant lines they created could be detected by eye in a dark room after about 5-10 minutes suggesting they could make quite neat night lights. This was exciting stuff as previous attempts to make glowing plants had revolved around getting the plants to express the luciferase gene from the firefly, which required plants to be sprayed with luciferin, the substrate for the reaction, in order for light to be produced. In contrast, cells that express the whole bacterial lux operon glow without needing any additional cofactors.

Glowing tobacco plants
Glowing tobacco plants

Interestingly, Krichevsky declares in his PLOS One paper that he is founder of BioGlow Inc, a company which aims to develop commercially available glowing ornamental plants. BioGlow Inc is listed as a tenant of the Bio-Research & Development Growth (BRDG) Park at the Danforth Plant Science Centre in Missouri, but otherwise doesn’t have much of a web presence.

But back to the Glowing Plant project. Antony and his team say they are planning on building on the work of Krichevsky and colleagues, making a synthetic version of the bioluminescence genes so that they will be better expressed by the plant cells. Fingers crossed!

1. Krichevsky A, Meyers B, Vainstein A, Maliga P, Citovsky V (2010) Autoluminescent Plants. PLoS ONE 5(11): e15461. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0015461

*The BioCurious ethos is that innovations in biology should be accessible, affordable, and open to everyone. They have built up a complete working laboratory and training centre for citizen scientists and hobbyists to get together to do science.

**I’ve blogged about P. leiognathi before. They use their light to trick zooplankton into eating them. In a nutshell, the zooplankton ingest the glowing bacteria but are unable to digest them. The glowing bacteria mean the hapless zooplankton are then more visible to their own predators, nocturnal fish, who devour them. P. leiognathi are unfazed by all this, ending up in the fish’s digestive system which is where they wanted to be in the first place. Genius.