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Glowing plants could be a future alternative to electrical lights

A team of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have used the enzyme that gives fireflies their telltale glow to create plants that glow in the dark, according to new research in Nano Letters.

The scientists developed the unique plants as a part of a plan that could one day lead to future energy savings. However, there is a long way before that point. Though the team tested the process on many species, they can only currently get it to work on arugula, kale, spinach, and watercress. Even so, they hope further study will one day allow them to use it on trees or other large plants in order to create a new source of outdoor light.

“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in,” said study co-author Michael Strano, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to Tech Crunch. “The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself.”

Cities are responsible for roughly 20 percent of the world’s energy consumption. Glow-in-the dark plants could lower than use and give regions other ways to light the area after nightfall. However, that goal, while reasonable, is a long way off. The team in the study can get plants to glow for roughly three-and-a-half hours, but the light they create is a mere one-thousandth of the light required to read by. In order to improve on the process, they will need to figure out how to better concentrate the enzymes used in the process and improve how such enzymes get released.

This is not the first time scientists have attempted to use these enzymes to light up plants, but it is more efficient than past methods. Not only can the team get plants to light up, they also can use a luciferase inhibitor to turn them back off. This enables them much more control over the process.

“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,” added Strano, in a statement. “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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