Share this project


Share this project

Create GLOWING PLANTS using synthetic biology and Genome Compiler's software - the first step in creating sustainable natural lighting
Create GLOWING PLANTS using synthetic biology and Genome Compiler's software - the first step in creating sustainable natural lighting
Create GLOWING PLANTS using synthetic biology and Genome Compiler's software - the first step in creating sustainable natural lighting
8,433 backers pledged $484,013 to help bring this project to life.

How bright can we make our plants grow?

The benchmark for bioluminescense has been set by the 2010 iGem team from the University of Cambridge. Look how bright they were able to make their bacteria glow - even reading by the light:

You can read more about their project here:

We see no theoretical reason why we can't get plants to glow as well as this in time. As George Church, Head of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, say's in the video we shared yesterday "to me it is paradoxical that we don't have glowing fireflies and glowing everything that glows brighter than a flashlight. Biology is very energy efficient and energy packets are more dense than batteries"

So here's the science behind how to plan to make a plant which glows more than the SUNY researcher's plant. There are four key activities we will work on:

1. Codon optimization: There are 64 different codons (61 codons encoding for amino acids plus 3 stop codons) but only 20 different translated amino acids. The overabundance in the number of codons allows many amino acids to be encoded by more than one codon. Different creatures, eg bacteria vs plants, use different codons in different frequencies to code for the same proteins. One of our first goals will therefore be to adjust the bacterial designs to match the codon structure of a plant - this will boost the production of the proteins we want the plant to express.

2. Promoter selection: When a plant is reading the DNA it uses promoters to decide when to produce a protein. This is the mechanism by which a root cell knows to produce different proteins than a petal. Some promoters are active only at night, some respond to external stimulae and some respond to different aged plants. There's even one which responds when a plant is cut meaning you could cut a leaf and have the plant glow along the incision, pretty cool! We have a long list of promoters to try and will try them in different combinations (eg should we make luciferin all the time and luciferase only at night... or both only at night?)

3. Metabolic engineering: What is the bottleneck of light production? Is it one of the enzymes that makes luciferin? Is it luciferase? Is it oxygen? Is it recycling of luciferin? Once we have a first glowing plant we will do experiments (eg manually add luciferin) to analyse which factors make the plant glow more, then we can boost that bottleneck to increase the overall reaction.

4. Gene copy numbers: Copy-number variations - a form of structural variation - are alterations of the DNA of a genome that results in the cell having an abnormal number of copies of one or more sections of the DNA. CNVs correspond to relatively large regions of the genome that have been deleted (fewer than the normal number) or duplicated (more than the normal number) on certain chromosomes. By experimenting with different copy numbers we can find a combination which optimizes the light production.

We hope that wasn't too technical let us know if you have any questions.

Kyle, Omri and Antony


Only backers can post comments. Log In
    1. Matthew N Kupka on May 2, 2013

      @Kavan: Yes, it is. But it would sacrifice some of the brightness, which is why they are sticking to only a blueish green glow.

    2. Matthew N Kupka on May 2, 2013

      They are also prototyping with agrobacteria.

    3. Matthew N Kupka on May 2, 2013

      @James: Not sure exactly what it is, but they call it a DNA gun.

    4. James Blaha on May 2, 2013

      What method are you using to get the synthetic DNA into the plant?

    5. ..asdf on May 2, 2013

      Is it possible to control the colour of the glow?

    6. ..asdf on May 2, 2013

      Add a switch to dim or off the glow too.

    7. Antony Evans Creator on May 1, 2013

      Michael: Short answer is yes. We will be using signal peptides to direct proteins to compartments (i.e. the chloroplast, etc.).

      Since scientists still have a LOT to learn about metabolic engineering, the best approach will most likely include a 'selective breeding' or 'directed evolution' component.

      This is also one reason for being open source and distributing the seeds. We want to empower people to pursue their own ideas - there are too many ideas for us to test by ourselves!

    8. Missing avatar

      Will on May 1, 2013

      I agree with James, the more technical details the better. Im sure many of the people backing this project have backgrounds working in bio labs. For me one of the most fun parts will be following your progress and how you are troubleshooting problems. Bring on the details!

    9. Michael Michalchik on May 1, 2013

      I think your bottle necks are going to be energy production and free radical damage.

      Have you considered that once you get the necessary genes into a few strains and get visable light you might get your best results by selective breeding for a few generations for teh most robust and brightest plant rather than trying to engineer the plants into their final form?

      You might also consider signal petides of some sort to compartantmentalize the reaction to limit toxic side effects.

    10. Justin Timothy on May 1, 2013

      How possible would it be to make an illuminated tree? Perhaps a pine tree?

    11. Nathanael Pine on May 1, 2013

      Your update was great. Very illuminating.:-)

    12. Jory Meltzer on May 1, 2013

      That was a great explanation, thanks!

    13. Antony Evans Creator on May 1, 2013

      Tejeev: after these steps. This is the main work that we will be doing for the next six to nine months, and then we need a few months to grow the plants to generate enough seeds.

    14. Missing avatar

      TJ on May 1, 2013

      Will you be fulfilling the pledges before or after these steps are taken to some degree?

    15. Heather Thompson on May 1, 2013

      Thank you for keeping us informed, fascinating - I need to learn more!

    16. Antony Evans Creator on May 1, 2013

      We decided not going to formally respond to the article, we don't want to give them more traffic. He's already retracted the first part of his criticism. And in the energy section he compares lumens of a street lamp with lumens per square feet of our plant without pointing out that a tree would be many many square feet. He also makes an extremely pessimistic assumption regarding the energy efficiency of bioluminescence systems.

    17. Missing avatar

      Matthias Granberry on May 1, 2013

      Please post a response to the criticism by Ars Technica's science writer. I know that the biochemistry differs significantly between the bacterial bioluminescence that you plan to use and firefly bioluminescence, but it was a fairly damming criticism by a writer that is normally fairly good.

    18. James Blaha on April 30, 2013

      I'd like as many technical details as I can get :) I've opened up genome compiler and am looking through the files you have shared. What is the difference between 6.2 and 6.3?

    19. Drew on April 30, 2013

      Great read! Keep them coming.

    20. Andrew Curtin on April 30, 2013

      I love this kind of detail, even if it is over my head. Keep updates like this one comin', they're great!