Printed: 2020-05-25

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Genetic engineering leads to glow-in-the-dark plants

October 15, 2014

A small biotech company in San Francisco is using genetic engineering to develop plants that emit their own light.


Luminosity has a long and storied history in biology, in fact it's even been the subject of a Nobel Prize. Bioluminescence is used as a core tool of molecular biology as it allows scientists to understand the inner workings of the cell.

The first bioluminescent plant was made in 1986, with the addition of firefly luciferine. The plant was very dim, requiring 8 hours of exposure on photographic film. It also required the addition of luciferin to glow as researchers added just a single gene for the luciferase.

More recently researchers at SUNY added the full glowing construct to a gene resulting in the first auto-luminescent plant. This plant had the bacterial lux operon inserted into the chloroplasts (which are like mini-bacteria) and dimly glowed without the addition of any external reagents.

The importance of luminosity has resulted in lots of research into and improvement of bioluminescent systems. One notable project is the University of Cambridge 2010 iGem team who created eGlowli bacteria which were bright enough to read with. The Cambridge team wondered what future uses their genes could have - maybe one day we could use trees to light out streets at night?

We were inspired by all this research, and wondered what would happen if we took these developments and combined them. How bright would synthetic genes make a plant glow?



Contact: Executive Director, Dr. James J. Hughes,
IEET, 35 Harbor Point Blvd, #404, Boston, MA 02125-3242 USA
phone: 860-428-1837