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Glowing Botany: Glow-in-the-dark petunias are coming to cities

The Light Bio company has developed petunia plants that contain a lighting garden of fireflies. Will they give up the street lights?

A street lit with petunia plants with gardens of fireflies. The illustration was prepared using DALEE and is not a scientific image.
A street lit with petunia plants with gardens of fireflies. The illustration was prepared using DALEE and is not a scientific image.

The night has come, and I go out into the street. But instead of darkness, I see a gentle, weak light, emerging from every flower bed, from every hedge. The leaves glow with a soft night-light that comes from within the plants themselves, as if they were full of fireflies. The flowers, in particular, light up the night with greenish, pink and blue hues. The artificial night lights tower around me, and I remember their white and invasive light, in the years when they still worked. Now they are no longer needed. The street is bathed in lighting that comes from the flora and fauna.

This is the future to which a new company is trying to bring us all. It seems to be on the right track, because in recent months Light Bio has managed to engineer the first plant that glows in the dark without needing special treatment or spraying with chemicals. The plant is already starting to be sold by order from the network - and even received the approval of the legislator in the United States. 

In other words, the phosphorescent future I described is just around the corner. But before we get to it we will have to deal with the history of genetically modified plants - and with the "great petunias massacre" of 2017. We will talk about all of them today.

But let's start at the beginning.

The history of the future

Plants that glow in the dark may sound like science fiction to us, but scientists managed to engineer them many years ago. In 1986, a whole team of researchers was mobilized to give the tobacco plant the The ability to glow in the dark. They inserted into it a gene that came from fireflies, thus creating the first hybrid between a plant and a firefly. And yes, it shone in the dark. 

This was a significant achievement in those days, and was widely covered in the press, but there was one big problem with the glowing tobacco: it did not emit light itself. The gene that came from fireflies allowed tobacco to activate a certain chemical that spread light, named luciferin. But the plant did not produce the luciferin by itself. The researchers had to spray the tobacco with luciferin to make the plant glow. It was a nice scientific achievement, but no one volunteered to plant tobacco plants in their garden that require constant washing with luciferin.

Twenty-some years after the tobacco case, researchers from Stony Brook University managed to improve the product. They borrowed genes from underwater phosphorescent bacteria, and planted them, again, in tobacco. Those genes were supposed to give the plant the same metabolic mechanism as in bacteria. The plant will produce by itself the phosphorescent chemical and the enzyme needed to produce the glow. These plants worked great in the lab.

But the real world is not like the laboratory environment.

The plant that almost glowed in the dark

A little over ten years ago, two entrepreneurs - Omri Amirav-Drori and Anthony Evans - started an extraordinary Kickstarter project. In fact, he was so unusual that newspapers all over the world covered him with enthusiasm, trepidation and even surprise. It can be assumed that the developers were pleased with the response, because a huge number of curious visitors checked out the project, and several thousand of them also decided to invest in it. In the end, Evans and Amirab-Drouri managed to raise $484,000 through the project.

The goal? You probably already understood: a plant that glows in the dark.

The project page received countless visitors, and the newspapers were filled with a similar number of reviews. Respected scientists were loudly concerned about the effect of the glowing plants on the environment and the insects. Lawmakers wondered whether they should expect a flood of mad scientists raising public funds to realize their genetic engineering visions and shape the world in their image. Kickstarter listened to the criticism, and announced that they do not approve the opening of new projects in genetic engineering. But it didn't matter to the original entrepreneurs, who set out with almost half a million dollars to create the first plant that would glow in the dark and be available to the public.

All this happened ten years ago, and they still haven't succeeded.

The failure of these entrepreneurs is very frustrating, because they were supposed to succeed. The studies that proved the feasibility of the project have already appeared in the scientific literature. The entrepreneurs only had to perform the same seemingly simple operation in a new plant - and that was it. But biology is not a simple science, and every organism and every laboratory comes with its own complexities. The transgenic plants they created did glow faintly, but it was almost impossible to see the light in a dark room. A year has passed, and another, and they still haven't reached success.

Four years after the opening of the original project, The entrepreneurs announced that they failed. They simply failed to integrate well the genes that came from the bacteria to make the plant shine in a significant and noticeable way. It was a moment of crisis for the fans of genetic engineering all over the world, and I admit that I was also among them. The potential was so clear, and right at our fingertips - but it escaped our hands.

But here he is again now.

The new plant

As you can understand, the entrepreneurs who founded Light Bio did not start from scratch. They drew on a rich history of successful research in academia and failed attempts in industry. This time, at least, there seems to be success. 

Light Bio chose to upgrade petunias - a common garden and ornamental plant. The researchers relied on a molecule called "caffeic acid" which is abundant in plants. In a certain mushroom there is a metabolic pathway at the end of which the glacial acid turns into luciferin - the same substance that produces light in fireflies. They inserted the relevant genes into petunia, and got a plant that should be able to produce actual light on its own.

And contrary to previous claims, he really does.

According to reports from people who were exposed to the "Firefly Petunia" (Firefly Petunia) as it is called, the plant does emit light in the dark. NPR reporter Sasa Woodruff says that - 

"When the lights go out, the petals slowly ignite with a greenish-white glow. The plant always shines, but our eyes are the ones that have to adjust to see the light. The fresh buds are the brightest and emphasize the radiant flowers."

But won't the plant only 'light up' once - when the glacial acid turns into luciferin - and then stop glowing? To avoid this risk, the researchers added genes that recycle luciferin and turn it back into caffeic acid. Petunias should continue to shine throughout their life cycle.

Let's adjust expectations for a moment: petunias are not going to light up the entire room like an LED lamp does. It is a gentle sunrise, similar to that of The full moon in the sky. In total darkness they can light up the palms of the hands. In a dark avenue they will be able to mark the way for pedestrians. And if I fill my bedroom with glowing petunias, my wife and I will probably be able to see each other even in the dark. 

What more do you need?

Minimum risk - maximum glamor

The immediate question that arises is whether it will even be possible to buy the engineered petunias in the United States. Won't the Food and Drug Administration - the strict and pedantic FDA - stop the sale?

The surprising answer is that the FDA has already approved the sale and distribution of the glowing petunias. The manager examined the new plant and decided that it was unlikely to spread various diseases or genes into the environment. This is a species of petunias that does not grow normally in North America, and is not considered an invasive species. Therefore, the United States government has determined that there is a minimal chance that the plant will disrupt ecosystems.

And what about the fear that petunias will disturb light-thirsty insects and attract them to them at night? The fear does exist and is real, but as Shalite Bio wrote in their request to the administration

"Petunias are normally grown in man-made environments where people live and work every day, such as homes, businesses or botanical gardens. Often in these environments, the nocturnal lighting coming from artificial light sources is much greater than the light produced by the self-luminous petunias."

We see here part of the problematic in trying to predict the future. One shining petunia is certainly not harmful to the ecosystem. But how will a whole bed of petunias affect? An avenue of petunias? A mountain of petunias?

Well, we probably won't see a mountain of petunias, exactly for the reason they defined Bio Light. It is a plant that is mainly grown in well-engineered urban environments. We choose where to place it and in what quantities. And although there can always be some kind of gene leakage into the environment, it appears that the risk of this is low. At least according to the US government. It is also encouraging to discover that the scientific journal Nature could not find scientists that will cause serious safety risks.

And yet, will people even agree to purchase the genetically engineered petunias?

The Great Petunias Massacre

Botanist Timo Thierry discovered the unbelievable in 2015 - and deeply regretted it. He spotted a pot with orange petunias, of a type that shouldn't exist. The only orange petunias at that time, were the product of genetic engineering from 1987. In those petunias, a gene that came from corn was implanted, giving them the The unique color. Those petunias were never meant to be released. They were not supposed to exist in nature.

Tiri took a sample from the orange petunias in the pot, and discovered that their DNA matched the changes made to the genetically modified petunias from 1987. He submitted a report to the state authorities, and they realized - all of a sudden - that genetically modified petunias had been sold in their territory for almost a decade. Governments all over the world have woken up and decided that they can only respond to these developments in one way.

And so began the great petunias massacre of 2017.

Orange petunias in a pot in Helsinki from 2016. Source: Wikipedia
Orange petunias in a pot in Helsinki from 2016. Source:  Wikipedia

Governments launched an operation Wholesale liquidation of orange petunias. Petunia growers were required to cut, burn, sterilize and bury their orange petunias. The petunia industry was hit hard. In the end, the inspectors also reached the small people - the petunia growers - and asked them to destroy the plants and seeds in their gardens. 

The answer they received was unequivocal. Diane Blazek, director of the Bureau of National Parks, repeated the responses received for NPR. 

"Wait a minute, it's Petunia." She reproduced in the responses of the gardeners. "We don't eat it. The orange gene came from corn. Why? Why can't we plant it?"

The public, it turns out, was not too excited about the genetically modified plant. He managed to stab with the orange petunias, on the nose and the anger of the legislator. In the end, the authorities in the United States decided to allow the sale of genetically modified petunias after all. 

Of course there are no orange petunias as petunias that glow in the dark. Still, judging by the reaction to the phosphorescent petunias, it seems the public is ready to embrace them with both hands. More than ten thousand customers have already joined the waiting list for purchase The firefly petunias, and the company intends to sell them through the chain in the coming year, before they transfer the glowing plants to nurseries as well across America. When and will they arrive in Israel? It is still too early to talk about it. In any case, it doesn't seem like it will be possible to stop the spread of petunia in the world. Any grower of petunias will be able to spread them as he wishes - and Light Bio deliberately chose not to stop this practice.

"The best way to deal with it," said one of the founders of the company in an interview with Nature, "is to conceive new, better products."

Where do we go from here?

Where do we go from here? To the world of petunias that glow in the dark, of course. But this is only the beginning and a sign of the future.

Currently, it is possible to find only a very small number of plants that have been genetically modified for non-edible purposes. Even the most boring of them - Carnation flowers engineered to be pink-purple - Add beauty and color to the world. The more interesting ones can perform truly impressive actions: for example, plants specially engineered to Purify the air in the room

Genetic engineering technologies open up a new and wonderful world for us. Even if we only stick to the simple possibility of producing light from plants, it is possible to imagine a future in which trees in the city will produce a glow that will rival that of delicate street lamps, or of plants that report to the farmer that they are sick and thirsty for water through luminous signals. 

And why stop there?

In the next decade, will we see truly medicinal plants - the kind that every person can grow in their garden, and whose veins will flow molecules that can soothe burning in the skin?

Will we witness real 'bell' plants - capable of vibrating and producing gentle sounds, in scales and combinations of sounds that are pleasing to the human ear?

Maybe we can program trees to make treehouses for us, without having to be sawn and killed for the sake of it?

A new and wonderful world is upon us, and it begins with flowers that glow in the dark.

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