There are many organisms throughout nature that can emit light all by themselves; this is called bioluminescence. While there are several examples of bioluminescent animals and fungi, there are no glowing plants. That is until now. Research published on 27 April in Nature Biotechnology from our Synthetic Biology group has shown the feasibility of creating plants that produce their own visible luminescence. Their own glow.
This self-sustained glow can be used to observe the inner workings of plants. One of the main drawbacks of the existing luminescent technologies is the need to add the “fuel” for a light-producing biochemical reaction to the plants; light-emitting molecules of luciferins. Adding these molecules externally for these studies was inconvenient, perturbing, and resulted in an uneven distribution. But last year, researchers revealed that the bioluminescence found in some mushrooms used similar biochemical reactions to the natural processes common in plants. So, because the fungi and plants speak a similar biochemical language, inserting DNA from these mushrooms into model plants in the laboratory allowed team to naturally integrate the bioluminescence into the plant metabolism and create a glow much brighter than previously possible as they can be seen with the naked eye. Fascinatingly, the plants containing the mushroom DNA glow continuously throughout their lifecycle too, from seedling to maturity and with no damage to their physiology.
This new technology is the starting point that will allow the development of a suite of imaging tools, not just to study plants in more detail, but other organisms too. These tools will allow real-time monitoring of molecular events that researchers are investigating just by filming the plants. As well as the practical purposes, this new discovery has aesthetic purposes too. Most notably, this technology can create glowing flowers and other ornamental plants that have bioluminescent properties.
Karen Sarkisyan, Head of the Synthetic Biology group at the LMS and senior author on this paper, discussed more about these findings:
“We think that this represents a new wave of bioluminescence-based technologies – those that rely on self-sustained luminescence and don’t require the addition of chemical substrates. We did not expect that the experience of seeing the glow in the full-grown plant with the naked eye would be so magical. I believe all members of the team would agree with me on that. In terms of healthcare, this means that we could have animal disease models where bioluminescence would report physiological changes that can be monitored in real time non-invasively.”
“Speaking of future technological development, there are three main directions we want to look into. Transferring the system to animals, which will be trickier but possible. We also want to further improve the brightness of the system through directed evolution and metabolic engineering, and finally develop new reporter tools and imaging technologies based on this system”.
This research was a large collaborative study that involved multiple academic labs and was led by biotech start-up Planta, based in Moscow, in partnership with Light Bio.
‘Plants with genetically encoded autoluminescence’ was published on 27 April in Nature Biotechnology. Read the article here.