Eat your heart out, ‘Avatar’ fans: MIT just figured out how to make plants glow

As one of the leading technology universities in the world, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has invented a lot of the cool tech we’d love to fill our apartments with. Well, researchers there just added one more item to the list — although this one’s a bit different to the typical robotics or artificial intelligence projects we usually cover. What MIT engineers have invented is a plant that glows in the dark. By embedding specialized nanoparticles into the leaves of an otherwise ordinary watercress plant, researchers were able to get the plant to emit a dim light for a period of 3.5 hours.

Instead of using electricity, the plants utilize their existing energy metabolism and convert this into light. While a dim light might not be of much use, eventually the researchers hope that it will be possible to make the plants glow brightly enough that they could illuminate an entire desk — acting like a natural desk lamp that you never have to plug in. Thinking big, it might even be possible to turn entire trees on a street into self-powering streetlights. Considering that lighting accounts for around one-fifth of all worldwide energy consumption, that could turn out to be a valuable goal to work toward.

The secret ingredient giving MIT’s glowing plants their luminescence is a type of oxidative enzyme called luciferase, which is also responsible for causing fireflies to glow. Another molecule used by the researchers is called coenzyme A, which removes a reaction byproduct that otherwise slows down the luciferase activity. The researchers packaged these molecules in nanoparticles and then suspended them in liquid. When the plants were immersed in the liquid and exposed to pressure, the particles entered the plants through tiny pores called stomata.

Early on, the researchers were only able to get the plants to glow for around 45 minutes, although in newer experiments they have managed to increase this to several hours. There’s no word on when these light-emitting plants will be available to folks outside of MIT labs, but we know one thing: We totally want one.

A paper describing the work, titled “A Nanobionic Light-Emitting Plant,” was published in the journal Nano Letters.

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