Could plants replace street lights?


New research from MIT could see public street lights replaced with luminescent plants


Engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have been experimenting with the idea that making plants and trees glow brightly would drastically reduce the need for electricity

MIT hopes that their glowing flora could be used to provide low-intensity indoor lighting, or to transform trees into self-powered streetlights.

Researchers recently made headway by embedding specialised nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress plant, which induced their test plants to give off dim light for nearly four hours.

“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,” MIT Professor of Chemical Engineering Michael Strano says.

The MIT team used “luciferase”, the enzyme that acts on a molecule called luciferin, gives fireflies their glow.

Another molecule, “co-enzyme A” helps the process along by removing a reaction byproduct that can inhibit luciferase activity.

The MIT team then packaged each of these components into a different type of nanoparticle carrier, designed to help each component get to the right part of the plant without killing it.

Plant nanobionics, a new research area pioneered by Strano’s lab, aims to give plants novel features by embedding them with different types of nanoparticles.

The group’s goal is to engineer plants to take over many of the functions now performed by electrical devices.

The researchers have previously designed plants that can detect explosives and communicate that information to a smartphone, as well as plants that can monitor drought conditions.

Lighting accounts for about 20% of worldwide energy consumption, and seemed like a logical next target.

“Plants can self-repair, they have their own energy, and they are already adapted to the outdoor environment,” Strano explains.

“We think this is an idea whose time has come.

“It’s a perfect problem for plant nanobionics.”

The researchers hope to develop a way to paint or spray the nanoparticles onto plant leaves, which could make it possible to transform trees and other large plants into light sources.

“Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant,” Strano says.

“Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes.”