Researchers at MIT have taken a major step forward in their quest to make plants that shine in darkness a reality. In what they call Plant Nanobionics, engineers have incorporated nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress, allowing plants to glow a dim glow for three and a half hours.

Their next goal is to create enough bright plants to illuminate a work space. If successful, the technology could also be used to transform trees into self-powered street lamps, according to scientists. The ultimate goal of the team is to “design” plants that can replace many of the functions currently performed by electrical devices and equipment. Lighting, which accounts for around 20% of the world’s energy consumption, and being able to produce it with bio-luminescent plants would significantly reduce CO2 emissions .

The idea is to create a plant that works like a desk lamp – a lamp that you do not have to connect. The light is ultimately fueled by the energy metabolism of the plant itself,” said Michael Strano, a professor of chemical engineering at MIT and author of a study recently published on a nanobionic implant. “Plants can self-heal themselves, have their energy and are already adapted to the external environment,” explained Strano. 

The main component of the luminous plants of the MIT team is luciferase, the class of oxidative enzymes that gives fireflies their characteristic light. Luciferase converts a molecule called luciferin into oxiluciferin, causing it to emit light. A molecule called coenzyme A supports the process by removing a by-product that can impede luciferase activity. The MIT team packed these components in a separate nanoparticle vector, made with materials that the US Food and Drug Administration classifies as “generally considered safe”. These supports help each component reach the right side of the plant, as well as prevent them from reaching concentrations that could damage plants.

Early efforts have led to plants that could shine for up to 45 minutes, but subsequent changes have increased activation time to 3.5 hours. The light generated by a 10 cm cress seedling is currently about a thousandth of the amount needed for reading, but researchers believe they can significantly increase light production and durability by optimising the concentration and release rates of enzymes. They hope to expand this technology to include a way to paint or spray nanoparticles on plant leaves, allowing them to convert trees into light sources.

The researcher’s previous efforts include designing implants to detect explosives and reporting that information to an intelligent device, as well as plants that can monitor drought conditions.