Bioluminescence and Genetic Engineering could help produce glow-in-the-dark trees which could be used for street lighting. Imagine replacing all the street lamps with trees that glow; everlasting light and a better environment.
Bioluminescence, the peculiar ability of some organisms to behave like living night-lights, is found in many forms of life. Fireflies are the best and most well-known examples. Simply put, Luciferin is responsible for bioluminescence. Luciferin is derived from Latin word Lucifer which means light bringer. This is the compound that generates bioluminescence and the light emitted is greenish-blue in colour. Luciferin is oxidized with the involvement of an enzyme Luciferase. When the molecules thus excited come to the ground state, they lose energy in the form light particles (photons) resulting in luminescence or light.
As mentioned, fireflies are the most well-known living creatures that glow or produce bioluminescence. However, a diversity of other organisms, including bacteria, glow as well. In fact luminescent bacteria are present in all marine environments and develop abundantly on the surface of decaying fish.
Luciferin is the universal basis of bioluminescence although it may differ from organism to organism in details of the chemistry, quality and quantity of light emitted. A debate as to why the light is produced in the first place has existed for quite some time. According to some this is wasteful process while the others believe that the phenomenon serves a definite purpose in different organisms including protection from predation and continuity of race under situations that deter survival.
More interesting and probably of more practical significance is the fluorescence produced by fungi. Naturalists in the early 19th century identified fungal growth as the source of the glow from wooden support beams used to shore up mines. Found largely in temperate and tropical climates, presently there are over 70 fungal species that glow. All of these (perhaps with a few exceptions) belong to the group known as agarics, mushrooms or white rot fungi. These fungi are capable of breaking down lignin (main component of wood) and hence their ability to grow on tree trunks. While growing on tree trunks, the mushrooms face high levels of reactive oxygen species produced during wood decay. Fluorescence is a kind of anti-oxidant protection mechanism to shield against these destructive oxygen forms.
It is not only protection against reactive forms of oxygen, but a means of attracting other forms of life such as grazing animals and insects etc. under dark conditions beneath the tropical forest canopies. These animals then become an agent or means of dispersal of mushroom spores far and wide, thus a mechanism for survival of the race. Bioluminescence only occurs at night and therefore this additional dispersal mechanism might confer to this fungus some advantage, especially in dense forest.
The chemical structure of the fungal protein used to generate the ghostly glow of foxfire has now been elucidated and found to be chemically unrelated to other known luciferins. Apparently, it represents a totally different mechanism of light emission. Fungal luciferin is compatible with plant biochemistry suggesting the possibility of genetically engineering an autonomously luminescent plant, one that would not require the external addition of luciferin, but would be able to biosynthesise it by itself. This would be a key breakthrough in designing a genetically modified tree that could glow in the dark and act as a sustainable source of street lighting, on top of helping the environment.
Integration of genes from bacteria into plants is a well-known and established technology tool to modify plants for different reasons. For example, genetically modified cotton (Bt) that harbours a bacterial gene (Bacillus Thuringiensis) to make it resistant to diseases especially those caused by white fly. Genetically modified cotton is now well-known in Pakistan as well as on global level and thus provides a good example of how plants can be modified to meet human ambitions. Modifying ornamental plants to glow at night as a replacement or supplement to street lighting may therefore appear as not-a-far-off possibility.You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ for more updates. Otherwise fill in the subscription box above, or subscribe to our RSS Feed.