Green Light

Kickstarter Projects Raises Funds to Develop Plants That Glow in the Dark

Scientists are raising funds on Kickstarter to develop genetically engineered plants that glow in the dark—thus eliminating the need for lightbulbs.

05.26.13 8:45 AM ET

Sick of replacing broken lightbulbs? How about growing a bush instead? A group of scientists and entrepreneurs are working to engineer bioluminescence-laced indoor plants to take the place of traditional lighting.

The New York Times reported earlier this month that the small group of hobbyist scientists working on the project took bioluminescence from jellyfish or fireflies and incorporated it into seed DNA so that plants could glow in the dark. The group’s core team of three and their eight contributors used what is known as synthetic biology to try to create a glowing plant. Scientists are currently working with a flowering plant that is part of the mustard family. The organizers want to move onto a rose next.

If the DNA implementation is successful, glowing plants can lead the way in replacing common light fixtures and even outdoor units like street lamps. Plus, glowing plants are more sustainable than electric appliances and as they grow, the amount of light spreads.

The market for glowing plants is apparently vast. So far the group has generated a cult following that ultimately became the research’s main source of funding.

In early May the Glowing Plants project generated more than $387,230 through 6,851 backers on Kickstarter. The group offered gimmicks like T-shirts, the seeds for glowing pants, and a glowing rose delivery for those who pledged money to the research. The quantity of donations received greatly surpassed the original goal of $65,000.

Despite the cool factor a glowing plant would bring, not to mention the source of renewable light, some environmental groups are against the idea. Critics fear that introducing one genetically engineered plant to mass audiences will open doors to other modified organisms and that the wide spread of the seeds won’t be controlled. Two groups wrote to Kickstarter in hopes of shutting down the money-raising effort to no avail.

The scientists of the Glowing Plant project warn that their research is still a work in progress. “We have put every care into the designs of the DNA but we may not get the glowing result we (and you) hope for. Biology is complicated and while we are confident of getting some glowing effect (it’s been done before in a research lab) we may not get a strong effect as we (or you) want or it may be unreliable,” the Kickstarter description said. “We hope to have a plant which you can visibly see in the dark (like glow in the dark paint) but don’t expect to replace your light bulbs with version 1.0.”