There is a chance that you will have a plant on your table instead of a lamp. While so far a new way of creating bioluminescent plants can only grant the power of light to tobacco plant in the near future they will give this power even to common house plants.
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Glowing plants aren't exactly a new idea. In the past, we even had plans to plant glowing trees in cities to save on electricity while providing the streets with light. But the current glowing plants' light was too weak.
But now an international team of scientists led by Karen Sarkisajan and Ilja Jampol came up with a new way that allows plants to glow ten times stronger than any previous glowing plants.
Caffeic Acid From Chokeberries
Many organisms glow in nature. Many use “borrowed” light as they host luminescent bacteria. This is, for example, the case for many glowing fish or cuttlefish that tamed the Vibrio Fisheri bacteria. But other organisms can produce their own light such as the Aequorea Victoria jellyfish or even fireflies.
So far, scientists have not sufficiently studied the biochemical processes that lead to the production of light in many other organisms. And lately, scientists tried to lighten up plants using genes that were borrowed from glowing bacteria. Sadly, the results of those experiments proved to be unsatisfactory because the bacterial genes did not work well in the plants and many of their byproducts showed to be toxic for plants.
The first glowing plants were created by scientists over thirty years ago using genes that were borrowed from fireflies. But now scientists are trying genes that they have borrowed from mushrooms. New experiments show that these genes can be easily transferred into plants that then have their stems, roots, leaves, and even their blossoms glow with a green light.
The key molecule that allows this is a caffeic acid molecule. This acid is commonly found in decent quantities in plants as it is one of the intermediates when lignin – a key building block of plants – is being made.
As you might have guessed from the name of the acid it is also found in coffee. But truthfully, coffee has a small amount of it in it. The really good source of this acid is a North American bush Aronia Melanocarpa better known as the Black Chokeberry.
Mushroom Enzymes Lighten Up Tabacco
The light is produced by three enzymes borrowed from the glowing mushroom Neonaothopanus nambi. The first two enzymes change the caffeic acid into a precursor for the bioluminescent substances and the third enzyme gets everything going as it helps produce the glowing form of luciferin. This allows every glowing tobacco plant to create thousands of billions of photons every minute. But you also need a fourth enzyme – again borrowed from mushrooms – that recycles the luciferin back into caffeic acid allowing the plants to grow normally as otherwise, they would suffer from the lack of the acid.
At this time, only tobacco can glow. But the scientists already have plants to create glowing roses or petunias. And they hope they could even “program” the plants to glow only under specific circumstances like when a human is nearby. And while mammals do not naturally produce the needed caffeic acid it can be produced in mammal cells by adding two plant genes. So maybe, one day, we will get to see even glowing animals.
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