Replacing Street Lights With Glowing Trees

A tale of crowdsourced DIY bioengineering


How many do-it-yourself bioengineering enthusiasts does it take to change a light bulb? Apparently 8,433. That's how many individuals backed the Glowing Plant Project on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter earlier this year.

Spearheaded by two biologists and a former Bain & Company management consultant, the Glowing Plant Project has at least two goals. Long-term: creating trees that glow so powerfully through bioluminescence that they can function as street lights. Short-term: promoting grassroots innovation within the realm of synthetic biology. You no longer have to be Monsanto to hack Mother Nature.

The quest for irrigatable illumination has been going on since the mid-1980s, when researchers first successfully transplanted a gene present in fireflies into tobacco plants. By now you'd expect to see phosphorescent Marlboros casting an eerie glow in what few dive bars still allow smoking, but progress has been slow.

Things sped up last year after former Bain consultant Antony Evans watched biologist Omri Amirav-Drory give a presentation on the possibilities of using living organisms to produce energy, fuel, plastics, and fertilizers. Evans was inspired by Amirav-Drory's suggestion that armchair tinkerers, utilizing sophisticated but easy-to-use software and a "biological app store," might one day assemble the genetic material for producing a "renewable, self-assembled, solar-powered, sustainable street-lamp"—in other words, a bioluminescent oak tree.

While glowing oaks currently exist only in the imaginations of visionary scientists, lesser life forms have already gone through a couple of tangible upgrades. In 2010, for example, a group of U.S. scientists created a tobacco plant that produced light autonomously. (The 1980s version required the exogenous application of a compound called luciferin.) That same year, in England, another group of scientists produced bacteria that glowed with enough intensity to read by or function as emergency signage.

The technology, in short, was ripe for further investigation. So when Evans encountered Amirav-Drory at another event, the two men started talking about using the biologist's Genome Compiler software to develop an actual product instead of merely hinting at the possibility in Power Point presentations. It would be something less ambitious than a luminous oak, but ideally brighter than glow-in-the-dark tobacco.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, there are 26.5 million street lights in the United States. There's an additional 26.1 million highway fixtures. Small cities spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on the electricity their street lights consume; big cities spend millions. While Los Angeles, Boston, and many other municipalities have been moving from lights that use high-pressure sodium (HPS) and metal halide (MH) bulbs to ones that use LEDs, which consume less energy, generate fewer carbon emissions, and require less maintenance, millions of the older-style street lights are still in operation. And even the LED versions require about half as much energy as the HPS and MH ones do, and they continue to emit carbon.

Trees, on the other hand, sequester carbon. They can also help reduce urban air temperatures. And they are relatively cost-effective to maintain. A report published in the December 2005 Journal of Forestry involving five cities found that they spent $13 to $65 per tree per year on maintenance. In contrast, Los Angeles spent $264 per street light in 2007 on maintenance costs alone (i.e., not including energy usage).

Glowing trees are "a very simple idea," Evans told me in a phone interview. "People have seen it in Avatar." With its paradigm-shifting sci-fi environmentalism and eye-catching visuals, turning plants into mood lighting is also the sort of project that seems genetically engineered for the highly viral domain of online fund raising. "We were thinking Kickstarter right from the beginning," Evans said. "We knew we needed money and that seemed like a good way to raise it."

They asked for $65,000. They got $484,013, from 8,433 backers. Eventually, around 6,000 of those backers, each of whom pledged at least $40 toward the project, will receive 50 to 100 genetically engineered seeds they can use to grow their own glowing plants. Another 210 backers, who pledged at least $250 apiece, will receive instructions and ingredients that will allow them to conduct further experiments and "transform [their] own plant at home, in [their] lab or at school."

This high-profile effort to democratize bioengineering has not sat well with environmental advocacy organizations such as Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group, which tried to get Kickstarter to remove the Glowing Plant Project from its site and publicly lambasted "the widespread and unregulated distribution of over half a million extreme-bioengineered seeds" to "6,000 random locations across the USA."

But Evans, at least, appears to maintain a fairly centrist perspective on the prospects of regulating this sector. "Agrobacteria is a plant pest," he said of the pathogen biologists often use in genetic engineering work, noting that it can transfer DNA between itself and other organisms. "If you were to release your plants and they still had bacterium on them, you could contaminate other people's plants. That would be a bad thing. That is something that should be regulated. But if we don't use that agrobacterium, then there's a much lower risk of causing damage to agriculture."

For their prototypes in the lab, Evans, Amirav-Drory, and their partner, biologist Kyle Taylor, are using agrobacterium to transfer newly designed DNA sequences into arabidopsis, a small plant belonging to the mustard family. But once they determine which new DNA sequences are most effective at increasing the plant's bioluminescence—a process that will likely take several months—they'll transfer the DNA to the seeds they'll be distributing to their backers via something called a "gene gun," a process that involves no agrobacterium.

That's why the seeds are unregulated: The Department of Agriculture doesn't believe they constitute a threat of any sort. "Regarding synthetic biologics, if they do not pose a plant risk, APHIS does not regulate it," a spokesperson from the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service explained to Nature in June 2013.

For now, legacy street light manufacturers seem safe from the prospect of glowing trees. In June, Evans estimated that his team would have its first prototype plants by October. "Then, we'll start tinkering with different [DNA] designs, to see what gets the best glowing effects." That process will also last several months. According to Evans, the project will likely begin to produce the seeds it has promised to its backers around the end of January 2014.

As the costs of genetic engineering decrease and the tools get easier to use, some tinkering with federal laws may be in order as well. "The regulations are quite opaque," Evans said. "It took us a lot of work to figure out what you can and can't do, and even with that research, there are people who say we've interpreted the rules wrong. So the government could do some work in making the processes you have to go through clearer." He also suggested that having multiple federal agencies oversee this domain creates bottlenecks. "I think it might make more sense to have a dedicated single regulator who looks at the whole space as one."

The biggest bottleneck is likely to be nature itself, which often moves more slowly than even regulators. "It takes a long time for a tree to grow," Evans says. "When you can only do one experiment per tree growth cycle, that is obviously a pretty slow process!"

To accelerate the rate of experimentation will require new tools. "One thing that would help is better simulation technologies," Evans notes. If scientists could simulate all the different cell types for a tree, they wouldn't have to wait for trees to grow to know if their experiments were working. Evans also imagines bio-printers that could print mature leaves, and gene therapy techniques that would allow them to adjust the DNA of already-mature trees.

As hundreds, then thousands of people begin to use Genome Compiler and related tools to design and produce their own new organisms, the rate of innovation will likely accelerate. In a few years' time, 2014's glowing plants may be thought of the way we now see 1974's personal computers—more proof of concept than useful product, a dim beacon lighting the way forward for thousands of innovators intent on creating some dazzling future we are only just beginning to imagine. Christmas tree light manufacturers, you have been warned. 

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    The Department of Agriculture doesn’t believe they constitute a threat of any sort.


    *runs off adjusting tinfoil hairpiece*

    1. But, but, but, think of all the carbons it will reduce.

      Teh carbanz are teh evulz.

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    2. The anti-GMO crowd will go bananas in opposition to the Glowing Plant Project. It will take many times the $484,013 so far provided by Kickstarter users just to pay for legal expenses defending the project in court. The environmental impact assessments alone will likely cost millions.

    3. It’s funny how they LOVE government agencies that tell them what they want to hear but HATE government agencies that don’t.

    4. GMOs make white women want to have sexual relations with negros, entertainers, and jazz musicians.

      1. Makes sense.

        Otherwise, why would anyone want to have sex with a jazz musician?

      2. I always wanted to be a jazz musician.

        1. that’s funny, i always wanted to have sex.

  2. Apparently 8,433. That’s how many individuals backed the Glowing Plant Project on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter earlier this year.

    I don’t believe it. Cooperation is impossible without coercion.


  3. Without government regulation…well, certain death!

    These plants got smart, a new order of intelligence. Then they saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. Decided our fate in a microsecond: extermination.

    Life will find a way. Jeff Goldblum told me so.

    1. One of the most cringe-worthy expositions scenes ever filmed.

  4. “Friends of the Earth”, my ass. Pack of fucking misanthropes with daddy issues out the wazoo.


  5. You can cut the cognitive dissonance with a knife.

  6. Time to work on that Elven glade I’ve always dreamed of.

    1. Lothlorien made reality!

      The enviro-nuts can keep their darkened Mirkwood.

  7. I want one of these. The only drawback is that they would always be on. I imagine engineering a fast-acting off-switch might be difficult.

    1. It can’t be worse than the extra-bright halogen lamp right outside my window. I’ll take a few.

    2. One other drawback is that they would produce a lot less light in winter when the leaves fall off, so some electric lighting might still be needed. But that could be solved by using evergreens, or just engineering some winter-hardy, evergreen oak trees. It would also be cool if they could get just one side of the leaf to glow, which would reduce light pollution. Science!

  8. “And even the LED versions require about half as much energy as the HPS and MH ones do, and they continue to emit carbon.”

    So light bulbs emit carbon? The little carbon atoms work their way through the glass enclosures and bombard us unsuspecting victims?

    1. Yeah, this is one of those things that get me. They tell you the electronic device “emits carbon”. I know what they mean… but jesus, just stop it already.

      1. I know. It’s not even tough or confusing to express in a sentence… “they continue to rely upon carbon-emitting power sources”. Bam.

        1. Whoa, slow down there, Einstein. A what source?

  9. I don’t get why exactly those environmental groups have a problem with this. These are the same groups that supposedly want us to rely upon renewable energy sources and then turn around and criticize attempts to put renewable energy anywhere: solar plantations in the middle of nowhere in AZ kill some supposedly threatened lizard we’ve never heard of before; wind turbines through those valleys or off the shore kill birds (okay, I can sort of see that); nuclear energy (okay, not really renewable but still…) is bad.

    I’m not really sure what they want. You can’t put in any energy source — even “renewable” — that won’t impact the environment somehow, from the manufacturing of its components to the actual production. Humanity is growing, its energy needs will grow. While it would be great if everybody would install solar panels or wind turbines on their homes/offices, that’s not going to happen anytime soon and that solution simple won’t work for many many people. Yes, we have to work to lessen the rate of increase of our impact; otherwise we will be drowning in our own filth in a few decades. But knee-jerk opposition to everything isn’t useful to anybody.

    1. “I’m not really sure what they want.”

      David Attenborough – ” Mankind is a plague on the earth.”

      I think you do know what they want.

  10. Why not splice cat genes into human eyes so they can see in the dark?
    Hacking up an occasional fur-ball is a small price to pay for less carbon.

    1. Not everyone can afford such a procedure.

      Stop Othering the non-human/feline hybrids!

  11. I have a hard time believing that they’ll get enough light for this to work aside from the fact that the energy consumed lighting is energy not available to support the rest of the tree’s life functions. And if a light goes out, i.e. the tree dies, do we have to have a grove of suitable replacements always at the ready (even in winter) or do we just pull a Detroit?

    I’ll also admit I’m a tad uneasy with a homebrew E-Z splice genome kit. It makes cupcakes or Gireals (Giraffe/Seals, the perfect pet!).

    1. The light is generated by chemical reactions, not electricity or combustion (OK, yes, combustion is a chemical reaction, but you know what I mean). The trees just have to produce the appropriate chemicals. Of course that will take more energy and maybe some special nutrients but I don’t see any fundamental barrier. As for replacements, why not just have a grove? We farm trees for other resources. You can always keep a traditional, portable backup light on hand to cover temporary outages.

      I don’t know if this will ever become commercially viable but it sounds really cool and not totally outside the realm of possibility.

      1. Light is energy, in this case it’s produced by phosphorescent compounds that are energized by some process in the cell. The trees have to produce and then energize the compounds…and a tree already has a lot of demands on its energy resources especially if it’s a bad season. I don’t think it’s going to work

  12. Crowdfunding is the future of Capitalism that makes the “need” for IP protection in order to profit from invention obsolete. Someone write a book on that, please.

    1. 8,433 people toss some money into a pot in exchange for some seeds. Seed capital for seeds. Very symmetrical. Then, the guys running with it become billionaires. The 8,433 are sort of miffed, but a deal is a deal. The next time however they want a piece of the action, not some magic seeds. And, it happens that way after a few times.

      Crowdfunding already happens, it is called an IPO with a publicly listed stock. And, it isn’t the future of capitalism. You’ve described capitalism.

  13. has been going on since the mid-1980s, when researchers

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