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Glow in the dark trees could replace streetlights

We all want to make the world a greener and more environmentally friendly place however the convenience of modern life often means this proves difficult to achieve. But what if you could replace everyday electric items with organic product ... say, plants? It might sound bizarre and futuristic, but that's exactly what scientists in the USA are hoping to do.

In a US department of energy-funded study, researchers were able to inject a luminescent chemical used by fireflies into the leaves of plants, allowing them to glow. The scientists even found that watercress treated with the chemical emitted a light strong enough to read a book. In fact, the light from the plant was able to last an impressive four hours. It also was found to be half as bright as a commercial 1 microwatt LED and 100,000 times brighter than genetically engineered tobacco plants.

How did they do it?

Using a pressurised bath, the plants were infused with the luminescent nanoparticles. An enzyme which causes fireflies to glow was added to the nanoparticles and a coenzyme, which increases the enzymes' activity, was added. Size and surface charge was used to control where the nanopartticles embedded themselves within the plant tissues, meaning the scientists could control how much light the plants could give off. Amazingly, the plant could also be 'turned off' by the addition of a compound that blocks light-emitting nanoparticles.

The future of glowing plants

Senior study author Michael Strano, Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT, has high hopes for the future of this discovery. '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.“Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees.'

We may not have glow-in-the-dark foliage quite yet, but our office plants still carry many benefits of their own including increasing productivity and happiness in the workplace.


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