Scientists engineer light-emitting plant

MIT researchers investigating plant nanobionics have succeeded in engineering a plant that can emit light. By embedding nanoparticles into the leaves of a watercress plant, they managed to get the plant to emit a low level of light for almost four hours. With further development, the scientists believe they can create plants that will provide enough light to illuminate a workspace.

Credit: NATNN/

Senior author of the study, Michael Strano says: "The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp − a lamp that you don't have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself.”

The aim of the research is to eventually use engineered plants as an alternative to electrical devices. Indoor plants could provide indoor lighting and trees could serve as street lights, suggests the team.

Plants can self-repair, they have their own energy, and they are already adapted to the outdoor environment. We think this is an idea whose time has come. It's a perfect problem for plant nanobionics,"

Michael Strano, MIT

As reported in Nano Letters, the researchers used the enzyme luciferase, which works in conjunction with co-enzyme A to cause a molecule called luciferin to emit light. They packaged these three components into a specialized nanoparticle carrier to help them reach the right part of the plant. The particles were suspended in a solution and the plant then immersed in that solution under high pressure, which enabled the particles to enter the leaves through pores called stomata.

Initially, the team managed to engineer plants that could emit light for a period of 45 minutes, which they have now succeeded in extending to 3.5 hours. The amount of light emitted by the watercress is currently only one-thousandth of the amount needed to provide a reading light, but Strano and team say they can boost the emission and duration of the light by adjusting the concentration and release rates of the three components.

In the future, the researchers would like to develop a nanoparticle paint or spray that could be easily applied to leaves so that trees or other large plants can serve as sources of light.

"Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant. Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes," says Strano.

Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.


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