Glowing trees – the street lamps of the future?

Global energy consumption is enormous and growing rapidly. If you believe the figures of the International Energy Agency IEA , the so-called world energy primary requirement was 21,963 terawatt hours (TWh), ie 21,963 trillion (10 12 !) Watts. That is the energy that would have to be generated by almost 2,000 nuclear power plants (taking a 1400 MW power plant as a reference).

Efforts are now being made worldwide to reduce energy consumption in order to conserve global resources and also to control the associated pollution. Measures such as the use of energy flow lamps, refrigerators and washing machines with an A +++ efficiency class, heat recovery measures in industry are being used more and more frequently, since we are already consuming more than our wonderful planet can provide. An impressive number, more precisely a date, shows us in this context the “Earth Overshoot Day” initiated by the “Global Footprint Network” or “Earth Overload Day”. This refers to the day of a year on which the human demand for natural resources exceeds the natural supply and / or the rate of reproduction on earth.In 2017 this was August 2, 1971
December 21. So at a breathtaking pace we humans use up the resources that our planet kindly makes available to us.

The street lighting of all German municipalities also contributes to this enormous energy requirement with around 600 TWh per year.

So we see: something has to be done and this is where an ingenious and visionary approach by researchers led by Prof. Michael Strano from MIT comes into play. He and his working group are working on a technique to one day be able to use trees on streets as organic street lamps. Sounds absurd or like unrealistic science fiction? I don’t think if you look at the first works by these scientists: among other things, modified cress, which can produce light for almost 4 hours. To do this, you produced three nanoparticles consisting of different types of materials and of different sizes (10 and 100 nm) using complex processes and each coupled a specific molecule to these particles (see graphic below):

1. The firefly-bound enzyme luciferase, which is involved in the production of light (SNP-Luc)

2. D-luciferin bound to poly (lactide- co- glycolide), the substrate which is converted by the luciferin and light is thereby generated (PLGA-LH 2 ) and

3. The molecule bound to chitosan with the beautiful name Coenzym-A, which stabilizes the light production of the luciferase (CS-CoA).

Test plants were then treated in a special process with a solution of these nanoparticles, as a result of which these stomata called stomata on the underside of the leaves were maneuvered into the leaf tissue and specifically into so-called mesophyll cells.

Engineering of living plants for visible light emission; Source:

The researchers headed by Prof. Strano also thought of an off switch: another nanoparticle loaded with a molecule that stops the function of the enzyme luciferase. If problems such as the light intensity and duration of the light emitted by these plants are solved and there is no danger to the environment from these nanoparticles, there should not be much in the way of such tree street lamps.

Prof. Strano:

“Our goal is to treat a seedling or a mature plant once and maintain that ability for life,” says Strano. “Our work seriously enables street lights that are nothing more than treated trees and indirect lighting in the environment of houses. ”

I keep my fingers crossed that this project will eventually become a reality. 

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