19 December 2017

Live lanterns

MIT has created a glowing grass for street lighting

Ksenia Malysheva, Naked Science

MIT engineers modified the common asp (Nasturtium officinale) by introducing luminescent nanoparticles into the leaf tissue so that the plant glows at night. Now the grass glows for four hours; the authors of the idea believe that further refinement will increase the luminosity and duration of the glow to such an extent that it will be possible to read in a dark room near a small pot with a plant, and the flowerbed will be able to illuminate the night streets.

"The idea is that plants can be used to light rooms or streets at night," comments the head of the research group Michael Strano (Michael Strano). Such plants could reduce the cost of electricity for lighting, which today account for about a fifth of global energy consumption.

The chemical reaction, during which energy is released in the form of light, occurs as a result of the oxidation of pigments of the luciferin class in the presence of the corresponding enzymes – luciferases. In a number of previous studies, the glow of living organisms was achieved due to genetic modifications, as a result of which luciferins and luciferases were synthesized in plant cells. Michael Strano's group offers an approach that does not involve manipulations with the plant genome. Instead, both pigment and oxidative enzyme are introduced into plant tissues as part of silicon-based nanoparticles (for luciferase) and polylactide-co-glycolide (for luciferin); plants are soaked in a solution of particles, and then exposed to high pressure, as a result of which nanoparticles penetrate into the tissue through micropores of the leaf. The solution also includes chitosan nanoparticles with coenzyme A, which promotes the elimination of by-products of the luciferin oxidation reaction that bind luciferase and inhibit the reaction.

Particles carrying luciferin and coenzyme A accumulate in the extracellular space of the parenchyma (the inner layer of the leaf), and particles carrying luciferase penetrate through the membrane of parenchyma cells due to their smaller size. When released from the nanoparticles, the pigment also gets inside the cells, where it reacts with luciferase, as a result of which the plant emits light.

The first prototypes glowed for only 45 minutes, the last ones for almost 4 hours; ideally, one treatment session with a solution with nanoparticles should be enough for the leaves to glow throughout the life of the plant, the authors of the development believe. In the future, scientists expect to simplify the process of delivering nanoparticles to plant tissues – for example, to create a spray, the treatment of which will be enough to turn an adult tree or lawn into a lantern.

All nanoparticles used in the experiments have been tested and approved by the US Food and Drug Administration as safe for humans.

The study was published in the journal Nano Letters (Kwak et al., A Nanobionic Light-Emitting Plant).

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