(PHOTO CREDIT: MCTCAMPUS)
Luciferase, the enzyme that makes fireflies glow by breaking down luciferin, has been implemented into plan cells before. However, because plants do not produce luciferin on their own, this method of making plants glow was deemed impractical. (PHOTO CREDIT: MCTCAMPUS)

Every other week Mallory Locklear, a graduate student at Stony Brook University’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, will take a look at Stony Brook-related research and science news.

Few glowing organisms exist in nature. The list is limited to things like fireflies, jellyfish and bacteria. Until recently, glowing plants were the stuff of fiction, like the luminous plants seen in “Avatar.” Now, however, these plants are less science fiction and more fact.

Some of the first attempts to create glowing plants in a laboratory took place in the 1980s when scientists attempted to follow in the firefly’s footsteps. When these bugs light up, it is due to a chemical reaction occurring inside their bodies. The firefly contains a chemical called luciferin that emits light when it breaks down. This breakdown is sped up by an enzyme called luciferase.

At the time, scientists found a way to put luciferase into plants.  However, without luciferin, it was like giving the plants a gas pedal without any gas. In order to get the plants to glow, they had to constantly give the plants a supply of luciferin. It was not an ideal situation as it required a lot of time, attention and, most importantly, money.

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But in 2010, Alexander Krichevsky, a Stony Brook postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Vitaly Citovsky at the time, came up with a different idea. Instead of trying to get the plant to express the glowing machinery of fireflies, Krichevsky used bacteria.

Plants are not bacteria any more than they are fireflies. However, parts of plant cells play by bacterial rules.

Chloroplasts, the parts of plant cells in charge of making food through photosynthesis, are thought to have bacterial ancestors. In fact, it is thought that a long time ago plant cells absorbed certain bacteria, which then became permanent structures of the cell.

This makes them very useful for two reasons.

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Because chloroplasts already function like bacteria in many ways, they are more likely to accept genes that originated in glowing bacteria.  And most genetic modifications in plants target the cell nucleus, where the majority of genetic material is stored. However, there is only one nucleus, severely limiting the amount of “glow” the plant can produce.

On the other hand, plant cells have many chloroplasts. Thus, if the glowing machinery can be introduced into the chloroplast, much more plant cell real estate will be dedicated to light production.

This idea was a successful one and resulted in a “PLOS One” publication.

Following that publication, Krichevsky created a company centered on what are now dubbed “autoluminescent plants.” His company, called Bioglow, has been improving on his original method and recently auctioned off a set of their glowing plants named Starlight Avatar™.

As of now, the plants must be grown indoors and only survive two to three months.  The Bioglow website mentions that the plants are less adaptable due to their “metabolically taxing light emission mechanism.” In other words, the process of glowing takes up a lot of the plant’s energy and it cannot spare the energy it would require to survive in nature.

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Despite the limited lifespan of the Starlight Avatar™, average bids for the plants exceeded $300 and topped out at $800, according to Bioglow’s website, suggesting the idea behind the plant is very popular even if the current product is not quite up to snuff just yet.

Bioglow’s website states that in the future they hope to create plants that will provide “more sustainable, cleaner, and affordable light sources.”  A very green plan for these glowing plants, indeed.

When asked about his former student’s current work and how it came about, Citovsky replied, “As young scientists, I let my postdocs run free completely.”

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