Scientists grow plants that glow in the dark

Need a nightlight? Glowing plants could be used instead of lamps in homes. © MIT

Is it wrong to interfere with nature? Using mushroom DNA, a group of researchers has successfully created plants that give out light. Some say it is wrong to meddle with the natural world.

What’s happening

From the stem up to the star-shaped flowers, every part of the plant emits a mysterious glow. In the dark, it is bright enough to light up a book, filling the room with eerie green light. Although it may sound like science fiction, this is a real, living plant, grown by scientists in a laboratory.

Find out more

The new plants use a phenomenon called bioluminescence. Thousands of organisms use it to attract prey or scare off predators. It’s responsible for fireflies, anglerfish, and luminous fungi, but bioluminescence does not occur in plants.

In an experiment, scientists transferred DNA from naturally glowing mushrooms into tobacco plants. Almost immediately, the plants lit up. The scientists’ success means they can observe how plants grow and use hormones. Once perfected, the process could also replace electric lights, with glowing trees instead of street lamps, or naturally occurring Christmas trees.

Biologists say the possibilities are endless, but critics say that humans should not interfere with natural processes.

Is it wrong to alter genes?

Some say…

Yes. Cross-pollination makes genetically altered species difficult to control. Seeds travel long distances and could create new plants, potentially endangering natural species. Once dead, trees would be difficult to replace and, while alive, they could also be potentially dangerous for existing wildlife, like birds that consume seeds and berries.

Others think…

No. Altering genes is similar to breeding dogs to have long hair or floppy ears. These scientists are simply using more advanced technology to transfer desirable DNA between species. Genetic modification can be used to save lives by creating crops, like golden rice. This development could combat climate crisis by reducing our need for electricity.

You Decide

  1. Is it wise to have gene-altered, glow-in-the-dark Christmas trees?

Activities

  1. Make an advertisement for a luminous plant to sell in shops instead of lamps, showing off everything it can do. Show it to your household and ask who would buy one.

Some People Say...

“Genetic modification is good if you modify in a good direction, bad if you modify in a bad direction.”

Richard Dawkins, English biologist

What do you think?

Word Watch

Emits
Gives out; releases.
Eerie
Strange and frightening.
Phenomenon
A fact or situation that is seen to exist or happen.
Bioluminescence
The natural emission of light from a living organism. Over 70% of sea life is bioluminescent.
Organisms
An individual animal, plant, or single-celled life form.
Prey
Victim; an animal that is hunted and killed by another for food.
Luminous
Bright or shining.
DNA
Short for deoxyribonucleic acid, this material carries genetic information in living beings. It occurs in a double helix shape.
Cross-pollination
The pollination of a flower or plant, with pollen from another flower or plant.
Genetic modification
Altering genetic information to create a desired effect. Some crops are genetically modified to be resistant to pests.
Golden rice
A genetically modified variety of rice, rich in vitamin A, that has supported communities suffering from malnutrition (when you don’t get enough nutrition).

Subjects

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