Turn off the lights: Glow-in-the-dark houseplants are on the way

A group of scientists wants to usher in a new era of bioluminescence

The glowing plants in the movie Avatar might actually have some real-life use.
(Image credit: Facebook.com/<a href="https://www.facebook.com/Avatar" target="_blank">Avatar</a>)

This is really cool: A team of scientists based in California are looking to engineer a new generation of bioluminescent plants by tinkering with their genetic makeup. And they've already smashed their funding goal on Kickstarter.

The kooky experiment is about more than making something neat to show your friends. As Andrew Pollack at The New York Times notes, the research could pave the way for "trees that can replace electric streetlamps" or even "potted flowers luminous enough to read by."

"We are using Synthetic Biology techniques and Genome Compiler's software to insert bioluminescence genes into Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant and member of the mustard family, to make a plant that visibly glows in the dark (it is inedible)," write the project's creators:

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Transforming the plant will initially be done using the Agrobacterium method. Our printed DNA will be inserted into a special type of bacteria which can insert its DNA into the plant. Seeds of a flowering plant are then dipped into a solution containing the transformed bacteria. The bacteria then injects our DNA into the cell nucleus of the seeds which we can grow until they glow! [Kickstarter]

As of this writing, the project has more than 4,700 backers whose donations have more than quadrupled the team's initial funding goal of $65,000. Pledges who donate $150 or more will even receive a batch of seeds for their own faintly lit plant. But as with all ambitious Kickstarters, says Boing Boing's Cory Doctorow, "you should be prepared to lose your dough." The scientists warn donors that this experiment is merely the first of many steps.

Still, it's a noble idea. Plants are clean, cheap, easy to dispose of, and don't require an external power source. Plus, they'd do away with a lot of the ecological unfriendliness we don't think much about, like batteries.

Synthetic biology aimed to make organisms glow is hardly new though — the research field actually stretches back to the '80s and includes the sequencing of firefly DNA. In fact, scientists have already modified the DNA of animals ranging from sheep to cats to make them uncharacteristically luminous. Perhaps the best part, though, is that unlike a genetically retouched kitty, a glow-in-the-dark fern won't wander away when you're trying to read.

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Chris Gayomali is the science and technology editor for TheWeek.com. Previously, he was a tech reporter at TIME. His work has also appeared in Men's Journal, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among other places. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.