The Quick Report

Glow in the Dark Houseplants are Now a Thing

Plants that glow like those in the 2009 movie Avatar are no longer fictional creations. Thanks to the work of scientists who have tapped into the building blocks of bioluminescence, we can now breed plants that glow in the dark.

What Is Bioluminescence?

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Bioluminescence refers to the production of and emission of light by living organisms.

The most well-known bioluminescent species are fire flies (also called lightning bugs or glow worms). These beetles belong to the family of Lampyridae with more than 2,000 described types.

However, scientists are currently aware of roughly 1,500 bioluminescent species that in addition to plants, include bacteria, insects, jellyfish, fish, worms, amphibians, arthropods, and mushrooms.

The uses of bioluminescence in nature include camouflage, traction, defense, warning, communication, mimicry, illumination, and counter-illumination.

Scientists Unlock the Key to Illumination

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The natural production of bioluminescence occurs when oxygen reacts with a light-emitting pigment called luciferin. This pigment also receives assistance from an enzyme, luciferase.

In 2018, an international team of scientists, including Karen Sarkisyan, a synthetic biologist at Imperial College London, identified the enzymes in Neonothopanus nambi (N. nambi) that allow it to emit light. 

Two years later, the scientists placed the genes for those enzymes into tobacco plants, which were chosen for their ease of breeding and rapid growth. The result was tobacco plants that gave off a yellowish green glow in their leaves, stems, roots, and flowers, Wired reported.

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A Glowing Plant Startup Is Born

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Partnering with Keith Wood, Sarkisyan founded the Idaho-based startup company “Light Bio.”

Wood was among a group of scientists who created the first genetically engineered glowing plant using a gene from fire flies.

Light Bio went on to develop a technique in which they used the DNA from a type of glowing mushroom called Neonothopanus nambi. During the day, N. nambi has an unremarkable brown color. But at night, the mushroom clothes a ghostly green.

Continuing their work, Light Bio developed petunias that produce a neon green hue using N. nambi DNA. They have now received permission from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to sell these glowing petunias in the United States beginning in early 2024. Voila! Glow in the dark houseplants!

USDA Takes Strong Precautions With Genetically Modified Plants

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It is remarkable to note that there are more than a dozen genetically modified crops grown around the world. However, only a few genetically modified ornamental plants exist in the market, such as several hues of purple carnations and a blue rose.

Part of the reason for this is that the USDA carefully screens plants to ensure that no disease or pest problems will arise for agriculture.

However, in the case of the glowing petunias, the USDA determined that these plants would offer no agricultural problems, nor problems with naturally cultivated petunias, therefore they can safely be bred and grown outside of a lab setting.

So get you some glow in the dark houseplants today!