Could our streets soon be lit by luminous trees?

Bio Plant

Remember that scene in the sci-fi film Avatar, where all the blue people gather round the tree that seems to be lit from within? Well, that could soon be a real thing, not just on Pandora, but here on Earth – and they wouldn’t just be pretty, they could be practical, lighting our streets and even our homes.

Dutch artist and entrepreneur Daan Roosegaarde has been working for several years in the field of biomimicry, the sustainability concept that leads to the creation of things which are inspired by the time-honoured strategies of nature.

He’s fascinated by the bioluminescence of creatures like jellyfish and fireflies, which can create their own light from biological fuel, and provide it independently, even deep in the ocean.

His interest led him to a collaboration with Dr Alexander Krichevsky, a biotech researcher from State University of New York, and founder of BIOGLOW, the St. Louis-based biotechnology firm that developed the first light-producing plant.

Several years of research on Dr Krischevsky’s part eventually led to him splicing DNA from luminous marine bacteria with the chloroplast genome of a houseplant. Thus was born the Starlight Avatar, which had the distinction of being this world’s first auto luminescent ornamental plant.

In truth, it isn’t that bright – BIOGLOW’s publicity likens it to ‘starlight’, so it’s not going to make any pitch-black thoroughfares navigable for vehicles in the immediate future. But while its gentle green glow may be limited for practical purposes, it’s encouraged further research, which might one day lead to plants that are more than just pretty.

The idea is that streetlights could be ‘grown’ as trees, or perhaps the plants could be placed in lamp-shaped receptacles. Taking some responsibility for street lighting off the grid could conceivably lead to some significant savings, though there are significant problems to be overcome first, not least the fact that they don’t live very long (around two to three months, which would lead to significant replacement costs) and the potential deal-breaker that they’re intolerant to sunlight.

The group will be conducting the research in the US – they won’t be able to do any in Europe because of the strict rules governing genetically modified plants on this side of the pond.

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