Glowing trees could replace street lights

It used to be that the only way you could see glowing trees would be in the Avatar home world or, more realistically, one of the boulevards in downtown Chernobyl.

But a team of boffins at the University of Cambridge has taken steps to make this a reality by developing genetic tools that allow bioluminescence traits to easily be transferred into an organism.

The undergraduates managed to modify genetic material from fireflies and marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri to boost the production of light-yielding enzymes, they then made further modifications to create genetic components, termed ‘Bio Bricks’, which could be inserted into a genome.

A range of colours were manufactured by then putting the genes into Escherichia coli bacterium, finding that a volume of the bacteria culture the size of a wine bottle gave enough light to read a book by. How much would be needed to power a Klaxons gig is unclear.

“We didn’t end up making bioluminescent trees, which was the inspiration for the project,” team member Theo Sanderson told the New Scientist. “But we decided to make a set of parts that would allow future researchers to use bioluminescence more effectively.” The team were participating in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machines (iGEM) competition.

It is noted that a major obstacle to producing bioluminescence is that the reliance on a class of compounds called luciferins, which produce light before being converted into oxyluciferins thus rendering them unable to produce light.  In order to counter this BioBricks were engineered to enable organisms to produce enzymes that could recycle oxyluciferin.

The team suggested that the bio lights could have a number of potential applications, such as providing light for those without access to a power grid.

Also, as they would have no breakable parts and would need to convert only 0.02 percent of energy absorbed through photosynthesis into light, they could potentially compete with conventional street lighting. However, it may be some time before our romantic strolls in the park are lit by the glowing of bacterium.

“The experiment involved increasing sustained light output from fluorescent enzymes found in insects such as fireflies or in marine bacteria, but we are quite a long way from actually being able to enable trees to provide lighting as you would need to manipulate specific organelles within the tree. It could however potentially offer quite a cool, green way of lighting streets at some point in the future,” said PJ Steiner, who performed an advisory role to the team, told TechEye.