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MIT engineers develop plant lights, future or replace street lighting

Dec 20, 2017

The road ahead may be illuminated by glowing trees rather than streetlights, and MIT engineers have created plants with bioluminescence. The researchers injected special nanoparticles into the leaves of watercress, and the plant continued to glow in the next nearly 4 hours.


To create glowing plants, MIT engineers used a biological enzyme called a fluorescent enzyme. Fluorescent enzymes can act on fluorescein molecules, causing them to glow. Another molecule known as coenzyme A can help the luminescence process by eliminating a reaction by-product that suppresses the activity of the fluorescent enzyme.

The MIT team loaded these chemicals onto different nano-carriers. Nanoparticles help the enzyme to get to the right place in the plant, and also prevent the enzyme from forming a poisonous polymer for the plant. In the end, watercress plants can glow like lamps.

The researchers believe that by further tweaking, the technology will also be able to get enough brightness to provide illumination for the workplace and even a whole street, as well as for low intensity indoor lighting. Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said: "We want to be able to use plants as a lamp, and such lamps do not need to be plugged in." The light will eventually come from the energy produced by the plant itself. ”

He added: "Our research opens new doors for new street lights and interior lighting that come entirely from specially treated plants." The oxidase of the fluorescent enzyme is present in many bioluminescence plants. "Fireflies are able to emit light through a chemical reaction in which the fluorescein is transformed into a fluorescent pigment." This reaction is very efficient, which means that almost all the energy involved in the reaction is rapidly turning into light.


Lighting loss accounts for around 20% of the world's energy consumption, so the use of light-emitting plants instead of lighting can significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Initially, the researchers were able to make the plant glow for about 45 minutes and have now been elevated to 3.5 hours. A 10-centimetre-high watercress seedling produces only 1 per thousand of the brightness currently required for normal reading, but it can still illuminate the words on the page.

The MIT team believes that by further optimizing the concentration and release rate of chemicals, the light and duration of the plant can be increased. For the technology, the team wants to develop a way to print or spray nanoparticles onto plant leaves to turn trees or other large plants into light sources.

The researchers also confirmed that they could turn off the plant's luminescence ability by adding nanoparticles that carry a fluorescent inhibitor of the enzyme. This makes it possible for them to eventually create a plant that can react to environmental conditions such as sunlight and turn off the luminous function.

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