In 2010, scientists at Stony Brook University used genes from bioluminescent marine bacteria to produce a self-glowing plant, but the light it produced was dull. Piggybacking on that discovery, entrepreneur Antony Evans launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to create “glowing plants with no electricity” using a different type of bacteria. Anyone who donated was promised seeds to grow their own glowing plants. The project raised nearly half a million dollars on Kickstarter—and sparked concerns about a potential large-scale release of genetically engineered plants that could become invasive pests.
After years of tinkering, Evans’ company, Taxa Biotechnologies, couldn’t deliver on its promise. It turns out that getting plants to glow on their own was more difficult than it initially seemed. Designing a plant with new features isn’t as simple as adding new genetic parts; those parts must actually integrate within the host. The firefly and bacterial genes just didn’t work well in plants.
Sarkisyan and Wood think they’ve solved that problem. They say the fungal bioluminescence pathway they’ve discovered can be coordinated with the plant’s own metabolic system to produce light. The process involves a molecule called caffeic acid, which is abundant in plants to make cell walls. It’s also present in fungus, where it’s converted into luciferin by four different enzymes. Light Bio’s plant is engineered with the genes that make those enzymes.
They claim the resulting plants glow more brightly than any previous plants. The petunias emit light throughout the plant’s entire life cycle, but the flowers are particularly luminous. “The light lets you see almost into the spiritual core of these plants,” Wood says.