Glowing Plants Might Soon Light Your Home

Who needs a desk lamp when you can have glowing plants?. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)/YouTube

Imagine walking out into your backyard at night and taking a stroll through a green-glowing garden, like something out of the "Avatar" movie. Now imagine that same effect while indoors; a home lit solely by luminescent plants.

Well, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are well on their way to making this fantasy a reality for all of us. They have developed glowing plants that might soon replace your desk lamp, with the ultimate goal of eventually superseding the need for electric lighting in our homes entirely.

“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,” explained Michael Strano, MIT researcher and senior author of the study, in a press release.

Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the research is that the glowing plants were created without any genetic modification whatsoever. Rather, the research team developed a method within the field of plant nanobiotics, which basically involves infusing living cells with nanoparticles that can perform a particular task. Before bestowing plants with the power of light, this methodology has been used to design plants to do things like detect explosives or monitor drought conditions.

The science behind the glow

To make the plants glow, the nanoparticles used were loaded with the enzyme luciferase and the molecule luciferin, which are the chemicals at play that allow fireflies to light up. Researchers coaxed plants to absorb these particles from a liquid solution by immersing them under pressure, which forces the stromata — tiny pores on the underside of the leaves — to open up.

So far, the method has been used on watercress, arugula, spinach and kale, each with extraordinary effect. The glowing only lasts for around four hours, but researchers hope to eventually make the ability permanent.

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

The light produced by the glowing plants is still too faint to light a home, or even to read a book under, but that should also improve as the technology develops. Researchers are even working on a mechanism that allows the plants to be shut off when other ambient light is already available (such as when the sun is shining).

Soon enough, we might not need electricity for lighting at all. How cool would it be if glowing gardens provided all of our lighting needs at night? Highways could be lit by the trees than line them; Christmas lights could be nanoparticle-infused grapevines. The technology has the potential to improve the aesthetic of all of our living spaces, all without any power other than the metabolisms of the vegetation around us.

The research was published in the journal Nano Letters.