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San Francisco-based entrepreneur Antony Evans plans to insert genes from bioluminescent bacteria into a species of flora as a first step to creating glowing trees. (Antony Evans)

Creating a New Kind of Night Light: Glow-in-the-Dark Trees

A group in California is starting to engineer plants that could one day replace streetlights

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San Francisco-based entrepreneur Antony Evans has come up with a radical idea for curbing power usage: “What if we use trees to light our streets instead of electric street lamps?”

Evans and his colleagues, biologists Omri Amirav-Drory and Kyle Taylor, want to create plants that literally glow. Evans was inspired by transgenic organisms, plants or animals with genes of other species in their own DNA, which have been used to fill many human needs. A gene from the bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis is routinely introduced to corn and cotton, for instance, to make the crops insect-resistant. In one method called “pharming,” scientists have inserted human genes into plants and animals so that these hosts can produce proteins for pharmaceuticals. Others have added a gene from the crystal jelly responsible for creating green fluorescent protein to animals such as cats and pigs; this way, they can determine if a disease has been transmitted from one generation to another, just by seeing if the offspring glows in the dark.

This spring, Evans’ team posted a video to Kickstarter, explaining how they plan to insert genes from bioluminescent bacteria into a species of flora as a first step to creating glowing trees. To feed viewers’ imaginations, the video included an image of Pandora, the luminous, mid-22nd century setting from the movie Avatar. In a raucously successful 46-day campaign the group raised nearly $500,000 to fund the effort. I spoke with Evans about his project.

Scientists genetically engineered the very first glow-in-the-dark plant in the 1980s, a tobacco plant with a firefly gene inserted into it. Historically, what has been the purpose of doing this?

The first time, I think, was just a demonstration project. But scientists have used it since to study things like root growth. They really use it for basic research purposes.

Traditionally, what they’ve done is insert the gene for luciferase [an enzyme from a luminescent organism] along with a promoter [a region at the beginning of a gene that tells a cell to start transcription, the first step to producing a protein] and then add the luciferin [a chemical that produces light when oxidized] manually. They have even had these glowing plants up on the International Space Station, so it is a pretty well established technique.

For your glowing plant project, you have chosen to use a flowering species called Arabidopsis thaliana. Why this plant?

We chose this plant because it has been extremely well studied by the academic community. It is the fruit fly of plant biology. The reason it has been studied so much is because it has the shortest genome of any [flowering] plant.

What gene are you adding to create the glow?

We are using genes from Vibrio fischeri. It is marine bacteria.

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