Imagine a world where the streets glow with a dreamlike shade of blue, as if you’re walking in the presence of ethereal spirits wandering the city. While that image sounds too mythical to be real, one start-up company is working to create this otherworldly environment for the future. Glowee, a French company planning on harnessing the power of bioluminescent bacteria, has officially debuted after successfully crowdfunding in May 2015. Their goal: to replace the electric street lamps of France with blue microbial lamps.
Bioluminescence is an organism’s ability to generate light in darkness. This is different from fluorescence, which involves absorbing light from an external source and immediately re-emitting a modified version of that light. While fluorescence is a physical process, bioluminescence is a chemical one that occurs due to an enzyme, luciferase. In the biochemical reaction, luciferase catalyzes the light-emitting pigment luciferin with oxygen in order to create light (Live Science, “What Causes Bioluminescence?,” 06.16.2010). For humans, bioluminescence has the potential to become a valuable source of renewable energy.
Consider the latest global push towards reducing CO2 emissions and fighting climate change. At the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, world leaders came to an agreement that everyone must do everything they can to cut down our energy consumption. While politicians can promise to limit emissions, real progress cannot occur without a viable green energy solution. Rather than an immediate transition to green energy, what if we tackled the problem one chunk at a time? This is where inspirations from nature and the creativity of science mesh together. For instance, bioluminescence doesn’t require any electricity to produce light. Given this fact, researchers are investigating engineered bioluminescence as a possible alternative to regular street lighting.
Replacing electric lamps with bioluminescent ones may seem almost trivial in the face of cutting global energy consumption, but reducing the number of public street lamps is a very necessary first step. In truth, lighting up the streets every night is an incredibly expensive task. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. spent a total of $11 billion on outdoor lighting in 2012, 30 percent of which went to waste on areas that didn’t use or need that light (Florida Atlantic University, “Light Pollution Hurts Our Economy and Our Resources,” 01.30.2013). Furthermore, a recent research study determined that there are currently about 300 million total streetlights around the world, and that number will grow to 340 million by 2025 (Northeast Group, LLC, “Global LED and Smart Street Lighting: Market Forecast (2014-2025),” 02.2014). With such severe drawbacks that come with electrical lighting, the use of bioluminescent light is a way to alleviate some if not most of that cost.
Today, the race to find the best form of engineered bioluminescence continues to bring us various creative inventions and solutions. At Syracuse University, a small team of scientists led by Rabeka Alam discovered a way to chemically attach genetically-altered luciferase enzymes from fireflies directly onto the surface of nanorods to make them glow (Inhabitat, “Scientists to Use Firefly Bioluminescence to Create Energy-Free Lighting,” 06.19.2012). In a process they called Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer (BRET), the nanorod produces a bright light whenever the luciferase enzyme interacts with the fuel source and can produce different colors depending on the size of the rod. According to one scientist on the team, “It’s conceivable that someday firefly-coated nanorods could be inserted into LED-type lights that you don’t have to plug in.” On the other side of the world, Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde has been working together with the tech company Bioglow to create bioluminescent trees to light up the streets (IFL Science, “Bioluminescent trees could light up our streets,” 03.31.2014). Incorporating important research from the University of Cambridge, Roosegaarde and his team spliced DNA containing the light-emitting properties from bioluminescent organisms into the chloroplasts of plants. As a result, those plants can produce both luciferase and luciferin that allows them to glow at night.
For Glowee, the plan is to harness bioluminescence by using Aliivibrio fischeri, a species of bioluminescent bacteria found in certain marine animals like the Hawaiian bobtail squid (New Scientist, “Glow-in-the-dark bacterial lights could illuminate shop windows,” 02.26.2016). They first produce a gel containing the bioluminescent bacteria along with various nutrients that keep the bacteria alive. Then, the gel is used to fill small, transparent containers, allowing the light to glow through. This method not only makes the light source wireless but also customizable depending on its purpose and design. These bioluminescent lamps would certainly appeal to shop owners in France, especially since the French government recently passed a law that forces all businesses to turn off their lights at 1 a.m. to fight light pollution.
Unfortunately, despite countless efforts towards perfecting engineered bioluminescence, it may still be a long while before our streets are lit by genetically-altered plants or bacteria. The two main obstacles in this endeavor are the relatively dim nature of the lights as well as their short lifespan. Even with Glowee’s bio-lights, the company’s current prototype can only produce light up to three days. Some argue that the cost and production of these bioluminescent products greatly overshadow their benefits, saying that such eco-friendly alternatives can never catch up to electrical lighting. While there may be limitations, all these projects by businesses and institutions signify the public’s growing desire for real change. A lot of these projects were funded by Kickstarter and other funding platforms. The public recognizes the potential behind engineered bioluminescence. With continuous effort and scientific innovation, a town or a neighborhood powered by living organisms instead of electricity can be a reality. By following the ghostly blue light ahead, we would take a tremendous first step towards a world where humans and nature can truly coexist.