Pandora Borealis – glow in the dark plants could create “Avatar” forests on Earth
Genetically modified petunias usher in a new era of consumer biotech
James Cameron’s 2009 blockbuster, Avatar swept the board at the 82nd Oscars, cleaning up Best Art Direction, Cinematography, and Visual Effects for creating the mesmerising world of Pandora, a habitable moon 4000 light years from earth populated by enchanting, luminous flora. Inspired by this cinematic vision, Karen Sarkisyan, a synthetic biologist at the MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences has brought a touch of Pandoran magic to Earth with sustainable glow-in-the-dark plants, now approved for sale by the USDA.
The synthetic biology startup he co-founded, Light Bio, today announced that its groundbreaking bioluminescent petunias are going on sale. Plants which have been genetically modified to glow in the dark is not an entirely new phenomena — in fact, they were first created by Light-Bio co-founder Keith Wood in 1986 using firefly genes. But a recent breakthrough by the team, just published in Nature Methods and Nature News, cracked the tricky problem of making the luminescence brighter and broadly applicable to any plant species.
Where previous plants required additional chemical input to sustain a dim glow, or like GloFish, the presence of UV light to fluoresce, Light Bio’s petunia utilities a new metabolic pathway that works with the plants own metabolism to let it shine independently and without the need for any chemical intervention.
The team, which included Sarkisyan’s group at the MRC LMS, Light Bio and scientists across 7 other organisations, created brighter plants by optimising genes isolated from multiple species of luminous mushrooms. Due to a surprising similarity between the mushroom bioluminescence pathway and plant metabolism, plants could emit more visible light than was previously possible. “Plants producing these enzymes can emit between 10 and 100 times more light than the previous generation – and there’s scope for more development” says Sarkysian, noting from the paper that the improvements were not limited to glowing plants. “If you treat the plant really well, if it gets enough sunlight and it’s healthy, it will glow brighter,” he says, “although it’s not bright enough to keep you awake at night. It’s a gentle green glow like the light of the brightest stars.”
Sarkysian and colleagues reported that the genetic modifications also elevated luminescence in yeast and mammalian cells, but the real breakthrough in luminescence in plants was making it entirely self-sustaining owing to the metabolic synergy. This enables perpetual illumination without any external aid.
Beginning in April, glowing petunias will be available under the brand Firefly Petunia. Petunias were chosen, says Sarkysian, because they’re popular as decorative plants, but not native to the US, nor considered an invasive species, so the risk of the modified genes ending up in native plants or disrupting environmental ecosystems is considered low.
Following a USDA evaluation that it can be safely grown and bred in the United States, plant enthusiasts in the US will soon be able to enjoy the transformative experience of living light.
Asked about the future for this research, Sarkisyan’s answers span science, translational medicine and art. Luminescence is already used as a marker gene in a raft of scientific and medical research techniques. “If we could make self-sustained luminescence work effectively in mammalian cells, we could begin imaging the physiology of animal tissues in healthy and pathological states”, he says, “But the next steps for plants are more colours, different plant species, an even brighter glow; we could create organisms that express their living energy with light, create forests and moon gardens, just like in Avatar”.
The glow-in-the-dark plants might be one of the first products that mark the new era of consumer biotech. Given resistance in some quarters to genetic modification of plants for food, it will be interesting to see if the US consumer markets respond positively to genetic modifications for aesthetic purposes and how quickly glow in the dark plants become a houseplant staple, and if this appetite reaches European shores.
For more information on Light Bio and its glow-in-the-dark plants, please visit www.light.bio.
MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences (LMS)
The MRC Laboratory of Medical Sciences (LMS) is a biomedical research institute which aims to advance the understanding of biology and its application to medicine. Our research is focused on discovery science and understanding the fundamental biological processes that underpin health and disease across three major areas; genes and the environment, sex differences and ageing. Through tackling these fundamental questions and building on our strategic alliance with Imperial and Imperial Healthcare NHS Trust we support the translation of this knowledge into clinical practice. The LMS is core funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC), which is part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and is based at the Hammersmith Hospital in West London. Find out more at http://www.lms.mrc.ac.uk or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
About Light Bio
Founded in 2019, Light Bio is a pioneering synthetic biology startup focused on cultivating vibrant bioluminescent plants. Through the melding of proprietary technology and advanced genetic engineering, Light Bio is bringing the magic of living light to ornamental horticulture. The company enjoys robust backing from industry leaders such as NFX, Ginkgo Bioworks, and others. To learn more, please visit www.light.bio and follow on Twitter and Instagram.