Could glow-in-the-dark plants replace streetlights?


Indie-Glow? Or Not a Glimmer of Hope?

However much or little Evans and company ultimately accomplish with Glowing Plants, not everyone shares their enthusiasm for the prospect of crowdsourced, home-grown, synthetic "genegeneering." Some question the project's safety, while others focus on its validity and financial ethics.

According to The New York Times, the environmental groups Friends of the Earth and the ETC Group have contacted U.S. Agriculture Department to head off the project and its potential "widespread, random and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds." As for the money, Evans told the Times that he will devote some Kickstarter funds to exploring related public policy issues, but many commenters remain skeptical [source: Pollack; Timmer].

So how scary are these trees? Could they pollute the environment with pixie pollen? It's hard to say. The process Glowing Plants will use resembles the one developed at Stony Brook University, which affected chloroplasts. In most flowering species, chloroplasts are maternally inherited -- passed on by seed, not pollen -- which reduces the risk of environmental contamination by, say, glowing roses, but many trees fall outside of this category [source: Krichevsky et al.].

And pollen poses only one of many potential environmental impact problems. For example, how would birds, squirrels or vital insects react to a glowing tree? How would planners go about conducting an environmental impact assessment for such a plant?

Meanwhile, numerous practical questions await answers as well: How much energy could such plants afford to allocate toward light production? And how brightly will they ultimately shine [sources: Pollack; Timmer]?

The problem is energy. Although the total solar radiation striking an average tree outstrips the amount required to power an effective streetlight, only a small fraction of that insolation reaches a tree's leaves -- and only a small portion of that falls within the wavelength band required for photosynthesis. The tree must then apply a sizable portion of this energy to living and growing, leaving only a fraction of a fraction of a fraction available to generate light -- to say nothing of the energy required to fabricate the necessary chemicals. The problem would only worsen in winter, when available sunlight dims and trees enter a metabolic stasis bound to kill their chemical shine [source: Timmer].

And that's the root of the problem. However poplar the idea might be, and however much donors might root or pine for it, glowing trees are a shady prospect at best.

Author's Note: Could glow-in-the-dark plants replace streetlights?

Would you want to live in a world that looks like a Pandora knockoff, or blares like the wall decorations of a stoner crash pad? If you said yes, would your answer change once you realize there's probably no way to turn the trees off?

Some embrace glowing plants for their symbolic value. Trees are associated with knowledge, whether in a Biblical or Newtonian sense, as are various light sources (light bulbs, lanterns and torches spring to mind). But symbols cut both ways, and a glowing tree that doesn't work -- or worse, causes harm -- is another arrow in the quiver of those who see at least some science as frivolous and not worth the risks research sometimes poses.

Either way, the phrases "do-it-yourself biolab" and "mail-order DNA foundry" give me the willies.

Related Articles

Sources

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