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Glowing trees could help light city streets

Home / Weird Science
By Kelsey Alpaio
@kelseyalpaio
Jan 08, 2015,  4:39 PM

Glow-in-the-dark trees may one day help to illuminate city streets without the use of electricity.

Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde and his team of artistic innovators is one of the few organizations attempting to create bioluminescent plant life. Roosegaarde is best known for developing artistic innovations aimed at social progress and interaction using technology, according to the design team’s website. His current projects include Smart Highway with glowing road lines and Smog Free Park.

Now in collaboration with Dr. Alexander Krichevsky of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, the Roosegaarde team aims to tackle a new frontier: luminescent plant life.

According to an interview with Roosegaarde from Dezeen, the team hopes to create trees that can be used to light streets without the use of electricity. To achieve this goal, the team will attempt to replicate the biological functions of bioluminescent species such as certain jellyfish, fungi, bacteria and insects.

Krichevsky has already achieved this goal on a smaller scale by “splicing DNA from luminescent marine bacteria to the chloroplast genome of plants,” according to Deezen.  In doing so, Krichevsky created Bioglow houseplants that emit light from their stems and leaves.

The team hopes to bring this project to a greater scale by using a large number of these plants to create a “tree” that emits light. Roosegaarde’s team further hopes to utilize this bioluminescence research to “paint” fully-grown trees with a paint inspired by the glowing properties in certain mushrooms. This paint, which would not harm the tree or involve genetic modification, would “charge” during the day and glow for up to eight hours at night.  Roosegaarde said that trials for the use of this paint would begin this year.

Roosegaarde and Krichevsky are not alone in their quests for glowing plant life.  A team of undergraduates at the University of Cambridge also attempted to create bioluminescent trees. An article in NewScientist describes how the students used genetic material from fireflies and marine bacteria to develop genetic mechanisms that help organisms glow. The team further utilized the Escherichia coli bacterium to create a variety of colours.

Although the Cambridge team members did not achieve their goal of creating luminescent trees, they “decided to make a set of parts that would allow future researchers to use bioluminescence more effectively,” team member Theo Sanderson said to NewScientist. The team calculated that only 0.02 per cent of the energy used by the plant for photosynthesis would be needed for light production. They also emphasized that because of the plants’ sustainable nature and lack of breakable parts, these glowing trees could serve as great alternatives to street lights.

Impact (ONLY use the 'Paste From Word' button to safely copy and paste text from a Word doc) 

The advisor to the project, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg described reservations about its future implications.

"We already have light bulbs," Ginsberg told NewScientist. "We're not going to spend our money and time engineering a replacement for something that works very well."

With the innovations made by Roosegaarde and Krichevsky as well as the Cambridge team, glowing trees may become the cost-effective and electricity-saving alternative to classic streetlights.

Forecasted start year: 
2025 to 2030

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