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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It will be a very different type of lighting effect. If you think about the way that the day is lit, the light comes from the whole sky; it doesn’t just come from a point, whereas light bulbs come from a point. Our lighting will be much more diffused and we think much more beautiful.

What are your sights set on now?

We are focused on executing on the things that we promised our Kickstarter backers. So, we are doing the work, getting the lab set up, ordering the DNA and starting to transform the [Arabidopsis] plants.

You and your colleagues promised to send each supporter, of a certain donation level, a glowing plant. What can people expect? How strong will the light be and how long lasting?

The light will be on at night as long as the plant is alive, but it won’t be super bright. We are aiming for something like glow-in-the-dark paint. You need to be in a dark room, and then you can see it dimly glowing. From there, we will work on optimizing and boosting the light output.

In the campaign video, you say, “the glowing plant is a symbol of the future.” What does this future look like to you?

The future we are referring to there is a synthetic biology future. We think that this kind of technology is going to become democratized; it will be accessible to many people. I’d like to see a future where teenagers and amateurs are genetically engineering things at home or in DIY bio labs. We want to represent that future, to tell people that it’s coming and to start a discussion around this technology—what it means and what it means for us. 

This technology is rapidly being adopted. It is going to be very transformational, and I think that it’s time that people sort of became aware of it and the potential of it, to take an interest in it. There are going to be some fantastic opportunities in it, so if people look at the project and think “I’d like to do that,” I think the answer is “You can.” Just go to your local DIY bio lab and start playing around, start learning.

Are there other transgenic organisms being created that you find promising?

There are tons of people working on stuff, tons and tons and tons. If you look at the iGEM [International Genetically Engineered Machine] Foundation projects, you can see some of the breadth and variety of things that are being done. The spider silk is cool. I think the guys working on new versions of meat are cool. There is some interesting stuff happening with algae in the bio lab down in South Bay [San Francisco], BioCurious. Engineering algae so that we can use it for energy production—I think there is a lot of work to be done on that, but it’s very promising.


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