While bioluminescent mushrooms certainly are fascinating, getting the things to grow in your home or garden can be challenging. Thanks to a new study, however, it may soon be possible to buy glowing versions of otherwise-conventional easily grown plants.
The research is being carried out mainly via a collaboration between Moscow-based biotech startup Planta, the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry of the Russian Academy of Sciences, MRC (Medical Research Council) London Institute of Medical Sciences, and the Institute of Science and Technology Austria.
Building upon a new understanding of the manner in which bioluminescent mushrooms are able to sustain their glow, the scientists started by extracting DNA from those mushrooms, and inserting it into tobacco plants. Although the process should reportedly work on a wide variety of other plants, tobacco was chosen because it grows rapidly and is genetically simple.
The resulting genetically-manipulated tobacco plants were found to continuously emit visible green light from their stems, roots, leaves and flowers, throughout all phases of their growth. And while we have previously seen temporarily glowing plants that incorporated enzymes obtained from fireflies, the mushroom-DNA plants are reportedly 10 times brighter, and they glow consistently.
The glowing action comes thanks to a molecule known as caffeic acid, which occurs both in bioluminescent mushrooms and in the lignin that makes up much of the cell walls of plants. In the mushrooms, two enzymes convert the acid into a luminescent molecule called luciferin, which is then oxidized by a third enzyme, producing a photon (light particle). Finally, a fourth enzyme converts the oxidized molecule back to caffeic acid, so the whole process can begin again.
Putting it very basically, the addition of the mushroom DNA to the tobacco plants allows them to do the same thing with their caffeic acid. In fact, the intensity of the glow given off by the plants mirrors metabolic processes taking place within them. For instance, younger parts of the plants, along with their flowers, are particularly bright. Additionally, if a ripe banana skin is placed near the plants, their glow will increase due to the ethylene growth hormone being emitted by that skin.
Working with Planta, biotech company Light Bio is now working on commercializing the technology, with plans to ultimately offer a range of glowing houseplants.
A paper on the research was recently published in the journal Nature Biotechnology.