Special Report

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

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)

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How is this done? Can you take me through the process of creating a glowing plant?

We start with software called Genome Compiler. Genome Compiler allows us to search for gene sequences and then modify those gene sequences in a nice graphical user interface. We use that software to look up the Vibrio fischeri genes, and then we do something called code and optimization, which basically adjusts the sequences so that they [work] in plants instead of in bacteria. We then synthesize the DNA. There is a “print” button, and we “print” that DNA. That emails the file to a company, who makes the DNA for us. They FedEx that back to us, and then we do two things.

First, we insert the DNA into some bacteria called agrobacterium. That bacterium is very clever, it has figured out how to do genetic engineering on its own. [The bacterium] inserts the DNA into the female gametes of the plant. We can grow the seeds that come from those flowers, and we’ll have the DNA that we designed on the computer in the plant. The second thing we are doing is using a gene gun, which is a piece of equipment that fires the DNA at high velocity into the cells of the plant. Some of those cells will absorb the DNA and start to express it.

You are doing your end of the work at BioCurious, a community bio lab in Sunnyville, California, in Silicon Valley. But how DIY is this? Is this something that a garage tinkerer can manage? 

As part of the Kickstarter campaign, we have a kit, which you can use to make one of these plants. The tough part is designing the sequences, but once someone has figured them out, you can follow the recipe. 

All told, you had 8,433 Kickstarter backers pledge $484,013. Did this reaction surprise you?

We were targeting $65,000, so it is great that we got so much. With Kickstarter, you never know. We knew we had something interesting, because everyone wanted to talk about it. But, we didn’t know it would get this big. 

How realistic is it to think that one day we could have glow-in-the-dark trees lining streets instead of streetlights?

We do think it should be viable, but it is definitely a long-term goal. The big challenge with the trees is that trees take a long time to grow. Doing experiments on trees and testing different promoters will take a long time. We really need one of a few different technologies to come out. One would be a better simulation technology, so that we could simulate the gene sequences on a computer. Two would be a bio printer or something similar, so that we could print a leaf and test realistically the sequences on the leaf [instead of having to wait for a whole tree to grow]. Or, third would be some way of doing gene therapy on trees and adjusting them in situ and using that to change their DNA. We do need some developments in one of those before we will be able to really take on big trees.

In preliminary calculations, you figure that a glowing tree that covers about 1,000 square feet would cast as much light as a streetlight.


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