Engineers embedded specialized nanoparticles into the leaves of a plant to induce dim light. (Image credit: MIT)


MIT engineers have successfully embedded unique nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress plant to induce a dim light that lasted for four hours and hopes their new development may one day lead to environment-friendly public lighting sometime in the future. While glowing plants already exist in nature as bioluminescent algae, harnessing that glow is a challenging, almost impossible endeavor. MIT’s approach merges science with nature to produce plant luminescence, albeit on a dim scale.


To get the plants to glow, the engineers created nanoparticles with luciferase (oxidative enzymes that produce bioluminescence) and combined it with coenzyme A (notable for its role in synthesis) to produce the desired lighting effect. They then immersed the watercress plants in a solution containing the nanoparticles and exposed them to high pressures, which provided illumination for four hours after treating the plants. They believe that with enough optimization of their technique, plants may one day create enough light to light-up your workspace.


MIT professor of chemical engineering Michael Strano states, “The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp — a lamp that you don’t have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself.” Strano and his team have devised a new research area known as ‘Plant Nanobionics,’ which aims to combine plants with various nanoparticles to take over some of the functions performed by electrical devices. References to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening aside, the engineering team have already created plants capable of explosives detection and those that can monitor drought conditions and transmit that data to smartphones, so there’s a good possibility we might get illuminated trees to replace street lights.



Those engineers are looking to turn their particles into paint or spray form to apply the particles directly to the plant leaves without the need for a solution bath and pressurization to get the plants to glow. Strano goes on to explain what they hope to achieve, “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. Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.”


The team can even turn the light off so to speak by adding nanoparticles with a luciferase inhibitor, which could ultimately lead to plants that can turn on and off based on environmental conditions such as sunlight. Perhaps we will one day live in a world similar to Avatar if they are successful in their developments or maybe something along the lines of The Day of the Triffids, only time will tell. 


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