The Earth is illuminated by bioluminescence, but for many of us it is a rather rare phenomenon to see. Now, researchers are working on bright flowers and ornamental plants that can project a green aura into our homes. And a study published in Nature Biotechnology shows how this goal is on its way to becoming a reality.
The research was carried out through a collaboration between three scientific institutions and Plant LCC, a biotechnological startup in Moscow; while Light Bio—led by a scientist named Keith Wood who, 30 years ago, created the first luminescent plant using a firefly gene—is the company that hopes to sell these plants. Problems with previous experiments on bright plants were that these plants were very expensive to modify and their brightness did not last long, since previously scientists focused on inserting luciferin into plants, a chemical that emits light and is found in bioluminescent organisms such as jellyfish, starfish and bacteria. But a discovery made in 2018 along with bioluminescent fungi allowed for a change in focus. In this work it is detailed as a molecule known as caffeic acid is responsible for the bioluminescence of a type of poisonous fungi: the species Neonothopanus nambi. And taking advantage of that information, the researchers used the key molecules that allow these fungi to emit light and genetically inserted them into tobacco plants, which also have coffee acid in their body. When not associated with bioluminescence, as is the case with plants, this compound helps strengthen cell walls and is involved in the conduction of plant colors and fragrances.
The result? Scientists claim that the plants were ten times brighter than in previous efforts and sustained light production did not damage the health of the plants. On the other hand, they also observed that luminescence decreased as the leaves aged and increased when the leaves were damaged. Which suggests, in turn, that this new method could help other researchers monitor plant responses to various stressors and changes in the environment.