Picture it. One spring afternoon you finish work, leave the office, go to the corner bar and enjoy a good beer in the light of the fireflies. Unless your company is in the middle of a meadow, it sounds like a bucolic fantasy in the purest Garcilaso de la Vega style; but it may not be so for a long time. For years there have been companies that have been working to illuminate our streets, squares and homes with bioluminescence. For now, they have already managed to capture the attention of the institutions and show what they are capable of with public demonstrations.
Who knows, it may not be long before you can move around your city under the glare of streetlights lit with the same bacteria that make Pacific squid glow.
What exactly is bioluminescence? Although it may have its poetic point, bioluminescence is pure science. And relatively frequent, too. It is estimated that it is shared by 76% of marine creatures and can be found from deep-sea fish and squid to krill or algae. The phenomenon extends to other animals, such as fireflies, certain worms or the springhares of southern Africa. Basically, it consists of a biochemical reaction that manifests itself in the form of light and in which the enzyme luciferase, the protein luciferin, oxygen and ATP intervene.
From the seas and fields, to the squares and houses. The challenge that companies, researchers and even public institutions have launched is to bring this phenomenon from the oceans and fields to our squares and homes. Initiatives are not lacking along these lines. glowee, one startup French founded in 2014, wants, for example, to take advantage of bioluminescent microorganisms grown in salt water and packed in tubes to create a kind of “lanterns”, similar to small aquariums.
What he proposes —and what he has been working on for some time now— is to cultivate marine bacteria Aliivibrio fischeri, the one that allows the Hawaiian bobtail squid to shine among others, in a mixture of basic nutrients and oxygen. As detailed by the BBC, turning off the light in your system is as easy as cutting off the air supply and putting the bacteria in an anaerobic state, without bioluminescence.
Same goal, different approaches. Glowee’s is one of the initiatives that has spread the most in the last decade, but it is by no means the only one. Seven years ago, the universities of Columbia and Seville were working on the development of environmental lighting devices based on bacteria Vibrio fischeri and algae Pyrocytus. Around the same time, in 2017, The Glowing Plan Project was also launched, a project with a more or less similar objective that aspires to create bioluminescent plants that could one day replace streetlights.
Although its approach may be more ornamental, in 2020 the magazine Nature Biotechnology echoed the work of a group of 27 scientists who —thanks to working with fungal genes— had obtained bioluminescent plants that glowed brighter and for longer than previous experiments. The truth is that the race to achieve vegetation similar to what we can see in movies like Avatar is not new. Decades ago, Keith Wood was already taking crucial steps in that direction. He is now framed in Light Bio and the development of a bioluminescent plant.
From theory to facts: the French example. Not everything is theory papers in the field of bioluminescence. A few days ago the BBC published an extensive report on the tests being carried out in Rambouillet, in Yvelines, France, a town in which some of Glowee’s light tubes have already been incorporated. As detailed, it is used in the Covid-19 vaccination center and the objective is that in a short time they will also be installed in a square. Similar experiments would take place in other parts of the country, including the Charles de Gaulle airport.
France is not the only one interested in Glowee’s proposal. The company assures that it is negotiating with 40 cities spread across Belgium, Switzerland and Portugal, as well as in its own country. Over time it has also managed to capture the attention of public bodies. The European Commission – the BBC specifies – has already granted it 1.7 million euros and has the support of the company that manages the French electricity network, ERFD, and Inserm. Even the Rambouillet town hall has contributed 100,000 euros to make the city “a bioluminescence laboratory”.
The big question: Why bet on bioluminescence? That, why? Regardless of how fascinating a house, road or square illuminated by bacteria can be, why should we change our incandescent or LED light bulbs? The key is provided by the founder of Glowee, Sandra Rey: “Our goal is to change the way cities use light. We want to create an environment that better respects citizens, the environment and biodiversity.”
In other words: it is about finding a more sustainable way of lighting. Today we dedicate a significant part of the energy to lighting our homes and streets with systems that, despite improvements in LED lights, consume electricity that is still largely generated by fossil fuels. Glowee claims that manufacturing its tubes with bioluminescent bacteria is more environmentally friendly than traditional systems: it generates 98.9% less CO2 during production and requires 40% less electricity and 95% less water.
A bet loaded (also) with challenges. Not everything is wonderful, of course. If we want to retire our streetlights and change them for plants or bioluminescent tubes, we must first solve some challenges, both technical and logistical. “First you have to feed the bacteria and dilute them as they grow. It’s not that easy. The phenomenon is very temperature dependent and I doubt it will work in winter. Thirdly bioluminescence is very dim compared to electric light.” acknowledges Carl Johnson, from Vanderbilt University, to the BBC.
Potency is one of the great challenges for bioluminescence supporters. Especially when we talk about public lighting that should contribute to safety and facilitate, among other things, road traffic. Today Glowee bacteria can produce an output brightness of 15 lumens per square meter, so it does not reach the 25 that are considered the minimum for parks and gardens and far from what a light bulb can generate. Domestic LED. Another challenge is to keep the cultures alive in the long term, for which the French company also delves into chemiluminescence and the generation of light without the need for live bacteria.
Pictures | glowee
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism