Plants that glow could illuminate tomorrow's buildings

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/05/14/plants-that-glow-could-illumin.html

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See I told you all those movies of the post apocalyptic wasteland was a future worth having!

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I’ve seen versions of this news around for years and I still can’t find luciferase nanoparticles online. The cool parts of this future take for fuckin ever to arrive.

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Don’t these plants have to be exposed to natural light in order to photosynthesize?

Is the idea here that the plants would be used to create nighttime illumination in parts of a building that would get natural light during the day?

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“turn trees into self-powered streetlights”

After you’ve recently injected the plants with all the chemicals needed to actually produce the light, sure… That job becomes a more complicated version of the Victorian lamp-lighters.

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Plant Scientist:

This won’t actually work. They don’t glow brightly enough to see well, if at all. Those pictures of glowing plants you see are taken with very long exposures.

Also it would be incredibly energy inefficient to plant, water, fertilize, and maintain a light source this inefficient.

It’s a zombie idea they’ve been talking about forever but it never happens because it doesn’t actually work. We’ve had “glowing plants” for 20 years, if it actually made any sense we’d have done it already.

Just think: Where are they getting all this light emitting energy? The overall energy efficiency of photosynthesis is about 8% (solar cells are >20%), and plants need all that energy to grow. I don’t know the number but I suspect the energy efficiency of bioluminescence is <10% (LEDs are >40%).

I won’t do the math here, but it seems obvious to me that having a crappy solar energy harvester, which also requires a large energy overhead, emit light in an incredibly inefficient way is not going to be a good idea.

Also it goes without stating that the energy required to water and fertilize those plants is enormous.

Who wants a lightbulb you have to water?

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While I love to see this work. In the current timeline most businesses can’t keep a non-glowing living wall alive. I think most decide it’s easier to just replant weekly rather than water.

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Oh good! More things for birds to fly into at night.

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Not to mention an eerie green one?

Why not simply breed giant fireflies?
I mean, what could possibly go wrong?

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I backed a failed Kickstarter like 8 years ago where they were trying to bioengineer a bioluminescent plant, it was a really cool project and honestly not upset that it failed to produce a product. The people running the campaign did science-y updates regularly and reading their process was fascinating, their last ditch attempt was making a fragrant moss to sell to make extra cash for the project which didn’t do as well as they had hoped. Ultimately i’m still excited and hopeful that someone will be able to make this into a real thing but there’s definitely a lot of hurdles that still need to be overcome, both in genetics and also legally since there’s a lot of restrictions on what can be done and what can be sold.

The sad part is that even when faced with the rational explanation and the math to back it up,

  • venture capitalists
  • ‘influencers’
  • designers
  • and the gullible general public
    will still not be able to restrain themselves from throwing money at this newest ‘Free energy! (and it’s pretty, too)’-Pie-in-the-sky.

Yet the mash-up of 1984 and Brave New World is here already! Hooray!

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Nowadays, the trend seems to be just to kill the plants and ‘preserve’ them.

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Somebody should bioengineer a mould that can be used as a kind of wallpaper.

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Not quite but nearly.

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It depends on what one expects the brightness to be, i think some imagine that it’d be somewhat bright which i don’t think is realistic. However i don’t think that it’s impossible to make glowing plants but it’d take quite a bit of genetic engineering to come up with a whole suite of mechanisms to make the life cycle of such a plant viable and efficient and i don’t think the laws and ethics of such an endeavor have been hashed out yet. I can imagine the reaction to designer/engineered life forms.

Um, Re-Animator fans?

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I’m positive that Hollywood has inspired many people out there to become scientists; perhaps some saw AVATAR:

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