Could Glow-in-the-Dark Tobacco Plants Light Up the Living Rooms of the Future?

Slate’s design blog.
Jan. 15 2014 10:45 AM

Could Glow-in-the-Dark Tobacco Plants Light Up the Living Rooms of the Future?

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An artist's rendering illustrates the alien greenish glow researchers at Bioglow hope to achieve as they learn how to increase the light-emitting capabilities of genetically engineered plants.

Image by Dan Saunders via Bioglow

Glowing plants—as seen in the seemingly fantastical flora of the 2009 film Avatar—are no longer just a special effect. Molecular biologist Alexander Krichevsky of St. Louis–based biotech company Bioglow has developed the Starlight Avatar, a genetically modified tobacco plant that glows in the dark, as a first step toward a world in which one day our highways and homes might be illuminated not with electricity but with the luminescent glow of plant life.

"There are no naturally occurring glowing/bioluminescent plants in nature," Krichevsky wrote me in an email. "While there are a number of various glowing species—fireflies, glowworms, glowing fish, etc.—there are no glowing plants. Starlight Avatar is the first one."

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Starlight Avatar by daylight

Courtesy of Bioglow

He explained that ostensibly “bioluminescent” plants have existed for about 20 years, mostly for research purposes. "These plants, however, needed to be sprayed with chemicals to achieve a temporary and very weak glowing effect, or be illuminated by UV lights," he wrote, noting that the light emitted by such plants is often not visible to the human eye and must be observed with special cameras. "Starlight Avatar—the first autoluminescent plant—glows on its own (no chemicals or UV lights needed) and is visible to a human eye with minimal adaptation time. The light emission is integral and natural to the plant, same as it is for fireflies, and will continue through plant’s life cycle and from generation to generation."

The Starlight Avatar was developed from an ornamental species of tobacco plant that, when modified using genetic material from glowing marine bacteria, autonomously produces a dim ambient glow that Krichevsky said is reminiscent of starlight (although its bluish-green hue is not the most flattering to the human complexion). Bioglow’s website says while the plant took years of research, the company plans to continue working to increase light output and hopes to develop warmer yellow and red-toned light that would ostensibly be more suitable for home use, as well as perhaps one day creating flowers whose petals would glow in different colors than the plant's leaves, or plants that could light up to signal changes in pollution levels or other environmental stressors.

Bioglow is not the only company developing this kind of technology. A recent Kickstarter campaign that inspired backers with the poetic promise of glow-in-the-dark greenery raised $484,000 (substantially more than its $65,000 goal) to develop seeds for glow-in-the-dark plants, sparking a controversial debate about the risks of dispersing genetically modified seeds to the public at large. That led Kickstarter to amend its rules to include the stipulation that “Projects cannot offer genetically modified organisms as a reward.”

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Starlight Avatar glowing in darkness

Courtesy of Bioglow

Krichevsky told me that Bioglow is a fully funded, venture capital–backed company that has not sought crowdfunding. But it is currently holding an online auction of 20 Starlight Avatar plants for those in the United States who are curious about seeing the luminescent wonders for themselves. A green thumb might come especially in handy here since at this early stage, the Starlight Avatar is suited only to indoor use and has a lifespan of two to three months, shorter than your average eco-bulb.