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More glow-in-the-dark plants on the way

More glow-in-the-dark plants are on the way, and roses may be next. Among projects seeking funding on the Internet in June was a plant-engineering idea which uses synthetic biology to endow a small, leafy plant with green-blue light via genetic circuitry from fire-flies. Thale cress, or “mouse ear cress,” is a small flowering plant native to Europe, Asia and Africa.

The Glowing Plant project seeks to breed a variety of Thale cress which would emit weak, green-blue light. Funders would get seeds to plant the hardy weed wherever they wish.

The U.S. government has no problem with this prospect, the Huffington Post reported, yet some experts and industry watchers fear that distributing the plants could set a precedent for unsupervised releases of synthetic organisms and might foster a negative public perception of synthetic biology. The project exceeded its Internet funding goal of $400,000 in late May. Its researchers, in San Francisco, will use the extra cash to try to create glowing roses, also.

Making plants glow has been possible since the 1980s, when scientists added a gene encoding the firefly enzyme luciferase to a tobacco plant. When sprayed with a chemical, the plant glowed temporarily. In 2010, another group engineered a tobacco plant to have its own weak glow, using bacterial genes.

Tropical fish called Zebrafish that are genetically modified to produce a fluorescent protein have been available to hobbyists for a decade and BioGlow, a commercial venture in St Louis, informed the U.S. agriculture department last year it plans to produce light-emitting plants, but has made few details public.

A glow-in-the-dark succulent variety was launched last fall by Amigo Plant in the Netherlands. The star-shaped Glowing Star in the Dark starts emitting light at night time, according to promotional material from the breeder, which claims all materials used for the product are safe for both humans and the environment.

One of the new products on display at the Tropical Plant Industry Exhibition earlier this year was the Desert Gems Collection of glow-in-the-dark cacti by Costa Farms in Goulds, FL. The display featured a black box that allowed visitors to see the plants glow in the darkness.