Plants that glow in the dark have been used as organic flashlights in past centuries, with one of the earliest records coming out of Indonesia in the 17th Century.
The idea of using plants as a light source never became mainstream and gradually faded with the invention of electricity. Nevertheless, recent discussions around climate change and advances in biogenetics like CRISPR have opened up a new world of possibilities.
Specialists have found a way to modify trees with luciferase, an enzyme found in fireflies and other glowing creatures that produces light when combined with other substances. When inserted into the DNA of plants, it allows them to make an organic light source.
Alternative substances, such as photobacterium, also exist; it is a type of bacteria that naturally emits light. Unknown compounds can also be used to create luminescent trees. Scientists could create bioluminescent trees by combining multiple genes related to luminescent species and inserting them into plants.
Glowing trees are no longer a dream; with research programmes funded by numerous organisations, government departments, universities, and initiatives like the Glowing Plants Project, they are steadily becoming a reality.
This article delves into the exciting potential of bioluminescent trees and how they could enhance Earth’s biosphere.
The science fiction of the past is quickly becoming a reality
The first known patents for bioluminescent plants were filed in 2002; one was by the Scripps Research Institute, which later abandoned the idea, and the other is by an American biologist, Bruce Eric Hudkins. A Chinese government official named Liu Limin later filed a patent for a ‘simulative luminescent plant and making method thereof‘ in 2003.
In 2009, the Avatar film was released to critical and commercial acclaim, becoming the highest-grossing movie of all time. It is notable for using CGI to create stunning visuals for its fictional glowing flora like the Tree of Souls.
After the film’s release, many viewers were left imagining a science-fiction future with shining trees. Subsequently, it increased the demand for bioluminescent trees to become a reality.
Since the beginning of the 21st Century, many advances have been made in the field of biogenetics, one of which is glowing trees.
The potential benefits of bioluminescent trees
Bioluminescent trees have tremendous potential benefits for our planet:
1) Saving energy:
Glowing trees with living organisms that require minimal maintenance and no energy input could replace street lamps, resulting in significant energy savings. Many trees have a lifespan of more than 100 years, meaning they can provide lighting for centuries to come.
2) Adding public safety:
The light from bioluminescent trees can help improve security in urban areas, making them safer for pedestrians at night. Crime rates tend to decrease in illuminated areas, making bioluminescent trees a great way to improve security.
3) Enhancing biodiversity:
Introducing bioluminescent species into the environment could add to the biodiversity of different ecosystems in urban areas by providing a safe haven for species, including pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds. This could help create urban green spaces that would otherwise be too dangerous for other wildlife to inhabit, creating a more sustainable ecosystem.
4) Improving nightscapes and reducing light pollution:
By using luminescent plants to light up public spaces at night, cities would become more attractive by replacing bright artificial lights with serene, natural illumination. It could also reduce light pollution and bring more peace to urban areas.
5) Tackling climate change:
Planting bioluminescent trees would increase the amount of carbon dioxide absorption from the atmosphere while reducing fossil-fuel dependence to power public lights. Furthermore, bioluminescent lights would not only be limited to public areas but could be planted inside pots and containers inside homes, offices, and apartments to reduce the need for electricity. In addition, using an organic light source can mitigate the heat produced by artificial lights.
6) Increasing national security:
During any modern war, one of the first targets is usually energy grids. Furthermore, EMP attacks can also disable electronic devices, leaving citizens without a source of light. In such cases, bioluminescent trees and plants could provide an alternative light source to the general public and soldiers on the battlefield. This option would also be a better alternative to candles or lamps that produce smoke or heat, which can easily give away their position.
The potential disadvantages of bioluminescent trees
Despite all the potential benefits, bioluminescent trees also have some drawbacks too:
1) Initial cost:
Creating and maintaining bioluminescent trees is expensive. The research, materials, production, and maintenance cost would be significant and could be too much to bear. At the same time, the first country or company to produce them could have a first movers advantage on the development and establish themselves in history.
2) Contamination risk:
Introducing genetically modified organisms into an ecosystem can lead to unforeseen consequences and potentially contaminate other species. It is essential to consider the potential risks of releasing such modified organisms when considering the possibility of introducing bioluminescent trees.
3) Environmental impact:
Genetically modified species within the framework of this article could disrupt the balance of nature and lead to potential ecological damage. Furthermore, the long-term effects of genetically modified organisms on the environment are still unknown and need to be studied in more detail.
4) Risk of overexposure:
The light given off by bioluminescent trees is weaker and less consistent than that of artificial lights. In addition, the lack of control could disturb sleep patterns or cause long-term health problems. Also, since there is no way to turn them off, developers would need to find ways to manage the light exposure of these trees.
5) Public resistance:
If the general population fears genetically modified organisms, they may not accept bioluminescent trees, even if they have all the potential benefits listed above. Educating people on their science and practical applications will be essential in winning approval for such projects.
6) Possible failure:
As bioluminescent trees are still yet to be developed, it is not guaranteed that they will be successful. Many unknowns in terms of technology and safety need to be addressed before such a project can become widespread. The most sensible option is to conduct all experiments in privately secured environments to prevent invasive species from getting out and avoid contamination.
The bottom line
Despite the potential drawbacks, bioluminescent trees remain as a viable option to reduce energy consumption, improve security and fight climate change. With careful planning and consideration, they can revolutionise how people interact with light while having a positive environmental, social, and governance (ESG) impact on the planet.
As research progresses, it might soon become possible to see glowing trees lighting up public and private spaces, quite literally leading humanity to a brighter future.