Get Ready for the Glowing Plants Craze

Soon, you'll be able to get one for your apartment. And in a couple of years, they could be used to light our streets.

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Artwork by Dan Saunders

Scientists have been engineering glow-in-the-dark plants since the 1980s. Soon, you might be able to use one to light your apartment.

At the end of January, St. Louis biotech company Bioglow will auction off its first commercial product, the Starlight Avatar. The plant has been genetically modified to glow by itself -- no electricity, UV light, or chemicals required. There will be 20 plants available, each starting at a minimum bid of $1.

The Starlight Avatar as seen in light and dark. (Image courtesy of Bioglow). 

Dr. Alexander Krichevsky, founder and chief scientist of Bioglow, has been working on auto-luminescent plants since 2007. A breakthrough came in 2010, when he successfully transplanted the genes responsible for making various marine bacteria glow into tobacco plants.

Since then, he's been fine-tuning the shimmer. With the initial prototype, you would need to stand in the dark for 10 to 15 minutes before you can see the plant glow. With the Starlight Avatar, you'd be able to see it glow after just 1 to 3 minutes in the dark. The Starlight Avatar's soft, ambient light lasts throughout its life cycle of 2 to 3 months.

The optimal conditions for the USDA-approved Starlight Avatar is indoors, at temperatures under 75 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit. With proper care - that is, water and just enough sunlight - the plant can grow to about 5 inches. 

Krichevsky says the company has seen tremendous interest already, especially from young people. He thinks one reason could be the 2009 science fiction film Avatar, in which blue-skinned humanoids lived among all sorts of glowing flora. He hopes Bioglow gets folks excited about plants and gardening.

But his end goal is a cleaner and more sustainable way to light our surroundings. How long until these auto-luminescent plants are bright enough to light up sidewalks and roads?

Krichevsky expects it to take another two to three years. He says most technical obstacles are behind them, but one challenge will be introducing glow to woody species like trees and shrubs.

Glowing Plant's latest prototype. (Image courtesy of Glowing Plant

The emergence of auto-luminescent plants has not been without controversy. Last summer, San Francisco start-up Glowing Plant ran a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, promising supporters glowing plants and seeds. Although the Glowing Plant team is working off Krichevsky's research from 2010, it's using a small flowering plant in the mustard family instead of tobacco plants. Before long, over 8,000 backers contributed over $500,000.

But environmental groups are worried about the unregulated spread of genetically-modified products. An online petition demanding Kickstarter shut down the Glowing Plant project garnered nearly 14,000 signatures. Kickstarter responded by banning all future projects from offering genetically-modified organisms as rewards to backers. 

Meanwhile, Glowing Plant is preparing the 600,000 seeds it needs to fill pre-orders. According to Antony Evans, CEO of the company, the team is on track for delivery this summer. He writes via email that their latest prototype includes only some of the glowing genes they want to insert. They'll need to add remaining genes to the plant and then scale up production.

Top image: artwork by Dan Saunders, courtesy of Bioglow

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