Glow-in-the-Dark Trees Could Replace Our Street Lights

Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde is teaming up with controversial start-up Bioglow to create luminescent landscapes.
Mar 25, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Dutch artist and designer Daan Roosegaarde has quickly become the king of glow-in-the-dark technological innovations. Last year he made headlines with a photo-luminescent powder that can be painted on pavement. Bye-bye, street lamps—hello, rave-worthy glowing road.

How could Roosegaarde possibly top that? With an idea to replace street lamps with glow-in-the-dark trees, of course.

It sounds like something out of the movie Avatar, but thanks to biotech researchers who are crossing DNA from luminescent marine life like jellyfish with DNA from plants, the idea isn't just a Hollywood plotline. Scientists are genetically modifying the molecular structure of the ornamental Nicotiana alata family of plants by infusing them with luciferin, the light-producing compound found in glowing organisms.

In the video above, Roosegaarde tells Dezeen that he has become fascinated by biomimicry, a scientific field that takes what's seen in nature and uses it to solve human problems. As a result, he has teamed up with the State University of New York and the synthetic biology start-up Bioglow to produce installations of streetlight-replacing greenery.

As cool as the idea sounds, the practice of creating glow-in-the-dark plants has come under fire from environmental organizations. Last year The New York Times reported that Bioglow was raising funds for its luminescent plant project on Kickstarter. Environmental activists petitioned both Kickstarter and the Department of Agriculture, asking them to shut down the project out of concern that it "will likely result in widespread, random and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds and plants produced through the controversial and risky techniques of synthetic biology."

The Department of Agriculture only bans invasive species, not genetically modified organisms. However, after Bioglow successfully raised nearly $500,000, Kickstarter quietly changed its terms of service, prohibiting projects from offering "genetically modified organisms as a reward."

Despite the controversy, Roosegarde is hoping to use Bioglow's technology to create a real-life installation. If it works, "it will be incredibly fascinating to have these energy-neutral but at the same time incredibly poetic landscapes," he says.