Thursday, December 9, 2010

Will 'glowing' plants light Arctic night? - help with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder)

As the cycle of light brings us into the darkest days of the year, I thought you might be interested in an article found in one of the many trade rags I monitor so that you don't have to. I want to make sure that my readers have the most up-to-date information about plants and gardening without having to do all the work.

Anyhow, the headline that caught my interest read: "Glowing Plants: The Next Big Opportunity?" At first, I thought I read it wrong and that the word was "growing" not "glowing." It was, after all, an article in a nursery industry magazine. On recheck, however, the article really was about the development of plants that give off light.

My initial reaction is that plants that emit light would rock the world, especially in a place like Alaska where we feature dark for a good portion of the year. And then there are places where there is no electricity and life ends at dark each day. What a change glowing plants would bring about. We could do away with street lamps. No more candles for mood lighting.
I can tell you, from previous articles on which I have not reported, the notion of plants that emit light has been kicked around for quite some time. In fact, there is already at least one process in commercial use whereby plants are coated with special dyes and then glow for a while after being exposed to light. I haven't seen them, but they apparently are sold under the name "Glowing Flowers." There are also some sprays that make a plant glow under a black light
Obviously, these coated plants have drawbacks, chief among them that they only emit light for short periods of time and seem to take light to make light. They are also 50 percent more expensive than normal flowers and don't pass on the glowing trait to progeny. In short, these are a novelty, a cheap thrill, that doesn't last very long. I can chew gum if I want that, so you didn't read about these developments here.
Ah, but a plant that really gives off light? That is something altogether different, right out of the forests of Pandora a la "Avatar" and other science fiction. As reported, a small biotech company has managed to insert the entire metabolic pathway necessary for light emission by some organism into the genetic material of nicotiana. "It's in there" technology means the plant will glow throughout its entire life and will pass on the trait to the next generations. "Autoluminescence" is the name given to this light-emitting property.
It all sounds pretty neat -- except for the genetic engineering, about which I have many concerns. In any case, it is now clear that it can be done. Mind you, so far we won't be doing much reading by nicotiana light. The process has produced plants that emit a very dim light, barely noticeable. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the process will be engineered, or should I say bio-engineered, until the plants can do a lot better.
Imagine, if you will, plants not only lining your walkways, but illuminating them. Plant night lights for the kids, special glowing plants for weddings, seasonal plant-light displays and plants that also provide lighting effects are on the horizon. Hey, we already have glowing fish. It isn't that far off.

Imagine, when the plants die back, glowing stems for the after season. How about plants that light the greenhouse. Think about the possibilities, but also think about how these genetically engineered plants get digested by microbes and what part of this glowing process gets taken up by other kinds of life? Are we going to see Monsanto produce glowing corn so farmers can work at night, only to find out that the product doesn't digest well and causes stomach lesions?
Either way, you heard the news first, right here. It is an amazing thing to think about a couple of weeks before the winter solstice: plants that glow in the dark.

Jeff Lowenfels is a member of the Garden Writers Hall of Fame. You can reach him at or by calling 274-5297 during "The Garden Party" radio show from 10 a.m. to noon Saturdays on KBYR AM-700.

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