If You Can Have Petunias, Why Not Glow-in-the-Dark Petunias?

Light Bio's bioluminescent firefly petunias shipping out now
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Apr 9, 2024 7:54 AM CDT

It looks like your average petunia—until the light dims. The flower petals, formerly white, suddenly emit a greenish glow, about as bright as the full moon. This, of course, is no ordinary Petunia hybrida, but one genetically modified to exhibit bioluminescence. Developed by Idaho biotechnology firm Light Bio, the so-called firefly petunias include four genes from the bioluminescent mushroom Neonothopanus nambi. "By inserting the mushroom genes into the petunia, researchers made it possible for the plant to produce enzymes that can convert caffeic acid into the light-emitting molecule luciferin and then recycle it back into caffeic acid—enabling sustained bioluminescence," Nature's Katherine Bourzac explains.

Light Bio CEO and co-founder Keith Wood was part of a team that created the very first bioluminescent plant: a type of tobacco inserted with a gene from fireflies. "At the time, the goal was to learn about the basics of gene expression," writes Bourzac. The luciferase gene was engineered to act as a signal, lighting up at the same time as another gene of interest. Biologists still use the technology to look for signs of stress or disease in plants, but they're also seeing demand for decorative bioluminescent plants because, well, they're just so pretty. "People don't think about science as just bringing joy to our lives," Wood tells NPR. "We thought we could do something really special here."

Light Bio's petunias, approved by the Department of Agriculture in September, are now being shipped out to the first gardeners in the US, following preorders in February (open to residents in the contiguous US). "If you treat the plant really well, if it gets enough sunlight and it's healthy, it will glow brighter," Light Bio co-founder and synthetic biologist Karen Sarkisyan tells Bourzac. He adds the company chose non-invasive petunias to lower the risk of the modified genes spreading into native plants. As NPR reports, the petunias aren't all that much different from an orange variety that gets its color from a maize gene and was approved by the USDA in 2021. (More plants stories.)

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