MIT has taken the first steps towards turning plants into functional lighting by embedding the firefly enzyme in the leaves of a watercress plant.
By introducing specialised nanoparticles into leaves, engineers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have created plants that can glow for nearly four hours.
It is a breakthrough that the university claims could allow house plants to be used as low-intensity indoor lighting and trees to act as self-powered streetlights.
Method could be used on any plant
To create the glow, the plants were impregnated with a solution that combines luciferase – the enzyme that gives fireflies their glow – which reacted within the plant's leaves.
The result is a dim light that lasts for around three and a half hours. The method can be used on any type of plant, and has so far, been tested on arugula, kale, and spinach, in addition to watercress.
In the future, the researchers also hope to develop a way to paint or spray the nanoparticles onto plant leaves, which could make it possible to transform trees and other large plants into light sources.
"Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant," Strano said. "Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to street lamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes."
By adding nanoparticles carrying a luciferase inhibitor, the researchers believe it will be possible to turn the light off. This could lead to the creation of plants that can respond to environmental conditions such as sunlight, and stop emitting light.
Plants can also be engineered to detect explosives
The university's plant nanobionics group is also investigating other ways plants can be engineered to replace functions currently performed by electrical devices.
Funded by the US Department of Energy the group is embedding plants with different types of nanoparticles to develop plants that can detect explosives and plants that can monitor drought conditions.