07/15/2014 08:56 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Could Autoluminescent Trees Be The Streetlights Of The Future?

This plant doesn’t “glow in the dark” -- it glows on its own.

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bioglow plant

It’s one of many recent luminant innovations, such as glow-in-the-dark sidewalks and roads fit for Tron, that are trying to disrupt the way we light our world at night. Scientists and DIY hobbyists alike are working to make self-glowing plants bright enough so that we can one day read a book or light a street corner by them.

Currently, tree-glowing technology isn’t advanced enough for that quite yet (the photographs were taken using long exposures), but we’re getting there, and it's not without controversy.


The first plant to ever glow on its own, pictured above -- also called autoluminescence -- was established in 2010 by Alexander Krichevsky by introducing a pathway that gives some marine bacteria bioluminescence into a plant’s chloroplasts. It’s not a plant that soaks up energy from a light source and then emits them after the source is gone, as do things that “glow in the dark.” BioGlow’s plants have been genetically modified, so they can shine all by themselves.

Krichevsky’s first iteration, a Nicotiana alata variety called the Starlight Avatar, emitted light, albeit very dimly. In May, however, BioGlow announced that it had achieved a “multiple fold” increase in brightness in its next generation archetype, and says red and yellow colors, in addition to blue-green, might be added in the future.

Glowing Plant:

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, Glowing Plants’ product is the stuff of novelty. Offering seeds ($50), an already-grown glowing plant (arabidopsis, $100), and glowing rose ($150), their pitch of use is to “use the plants as a nightlight or show them off to your friends."

They use synthetic biology by information that's readily available online.

In the above video, Glowing Plants Founder and CEO, Antony Evans, told the Wall Street Journal that, since it has become more affordable to read and write DNA, "We’re able to take DNA sequences from marine bacteria -- we just download them online, they're freely available online -- and use computer software to rewrite DNA so that it can be read by plants. . . . It’s almost as simple as pressing a print button in the software and then uploading our credit card information."

While Glowing Plants’ obvious primary goal is to make plants that glow, there is another, more controversial message: you can modify genes on your own. Glowing Plants took a cue from Elon Musk and plans to release its methods in a large, image-heavy book titled, “How To Make A Glowing Plant.”

They want to publicize a do-it-yourself approach to synthetic biology to “inspire others to create new living things.

Not surprisingly, there are critics. Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group told the New York Times they expect this to create a “widespread, random and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds and plants produced through the controversial and risky techniques of synthetic biology.”

So, is there a chance your street could be an Avatar wonderland, or at the very least, upend the multibillion-dollar electricity industry?

Ars Technica thinks not, citing that the "energetic challenges of producing sufficient light without killing the plant," would be significant. As it stands right now, BioGlow’s plants only glow for about 2-to-3 months (its lifespan), according to their website, and can’t cross-pollinate.

And street lights, Ars Technica calculates, emit about 10,000 lumens, whereas a glowing tree could feasibly only reach 5,000.

Skepticism aside, wouldn't it be soothing to wake up under a glowing tree, gently blowing in the wind?