Lighting of the Future – Softly Glowing Plants

Written by Dr Klaus L E Kaiser

Artificially glowing yeast cells in a test tube . Credit: Sergei Shakhov, Science Daily.

Just when lighting technology has made a quantum leap, from incandescent light bulbs to light emitting diodes (LEDs), a new lighting idea appears on the (yet very far) horizon: bioluminescent (glowing) plants.

As reported in Nature Methods (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41592-019-0311-4 ) by Rita Strack, the group of Russian scientists headed by Ilia Yampolsky at the Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry in Moscow, Russia, has successfully transferred the “glow-producing” gene part from the bioluminescent (and poisonous) mushroom Neonothopanus nambi to another fungus, the yeast Pichia pastoris.

You may wonder, what’s so special about the finding? The answer is:

Gene Transfer between Eukaryotes

Eukaryotes are higher organisms that are differentiated from lower Prokaryotes (    https://www.difference.wiki/prokaryotic-cell-vs-eukaryotic-cell/ ) by their cell complexity.

Eukaryotes are mostly Gram-positive ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gram-positive_bacteria ) and the Prokaryotes mostly Gram-negative organisms. In practice they are often differentiated with the Gram stain test ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gram_stain ), named after the Danish scientist Hans Christian Gram (1853-1938). However, this boundary is somewhat soft as there are also Gram-positive bacteria known.

In general though, bacteria are mostly Gram-negative and yeasts and all other higher organisms are Gram-positive.

That’s what makes this gene-transfer claim so interesting, i.e. the transfer between eukaryotic species. No doubt, it’s an interesting finding. But the associated hype seems to be highly exaggerated.

The Hype

According to Stark’s report, Karen Sarkisyan, a collaborator on this study, expressed hope that “this system  will bring bioluminescent technologies beyond being used just as a tool for scientific research, for example, to create glowing plants for interior and landscape design, perhaps even for street lighting.”

From an experimental observation involving two fungal species to speculate about “street lighting” is more than a simple extrapolation. To use an old metaphor, that comes to my mind: it’s making a mountain out of a molehill.

Therefore, better not hurry to throw out your favorite lighting fixtures, house plants, and garden plants yet. Actually, I think that, in the foreseeable future, there is neither a need nor a way to replace them with bioluminescent plants at all. However, if you still think that glowing yeasts and plants will light the future, I suggest you consider raising swarms of firefly beetles – they even sparkle.

On the other hand, also think of the German idiom “im Dunkeln ist gut munkeln,” best translated to:

The dark is the friend of lovers.

Further reading:

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Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser is author of CONVENIENT MYTHS, the green revolution – perceptions, politics, and facts Convenient Myths

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