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Light Bio - glowing flowers
Image credit: Light Bio

Nature’s night lights: Light Bio’s bioluminescent plants show ‘magic’ of biotech, says CEO

February 1, 2024

Idaho-based startup Light Bio has launched its first tranche of bioluminescent plants that glow in the dark after securing the regulatory green light from USDA, in a move that will show consumers the ‘magic’ of biotechnology, says its CEO.

The DNA of the glowing petunias—50,000 of which are now available to US consumers via Light Bio’s website for $29 each—has been re-tooled through the introduction of genes from naturally bioluminescent mushrooms.

Unlike the approach he deployed in the 1980s to create the first glowing plant using genes from fireflies, Light Bio’s tech enables perpetual illumination without any external aids, CEO Dr. Keith Wood told AgFunderNews.

“When we made the first glowing plant in San Diego, we put the gene for the enzyme in the plant but we had to water the plant with the substrate to keep it glowing,” explained Wood.  “And that’s not what people want, they want a plant that just keeps glowing. With the approach we’re using at Light Bio, light is emitted continuously.”

The 'Firefly Petunia' from Light Bio
According to a regulatory filing with the USDA, “Green light is emitted continuously by the plants at a low level, most prominently from young flowers.” Image credit: Light Bio

Novel approach

Following the initial work with genes from fireflies, several startups tried to create glowing plants using genes from bioluminescent bacteria. However, the approach has not been successfully commercialized because it is technically cumbersome and fails to produce sufficient light, claimed Wood.

When he was approached a few years ago by researchers at Imperial College London and a Moscow-based startup called Planta who said it might be feasible to integrate the fungal caffeic acid cycle into plant metabolism, he was intrigued.

“There must have been north of 10 different organizations who have tried make bioluminescent plants using bacterial systems, but it just doesn’t work very well. But they [the researchers at Planta] had taken a different approach: they had engineered fungal bioluminescence genes into the plant genome and wanted to know if I would join and lead the company.

“At the time, I was head of research at a company in Wisconsin [Promega] and things were going really well, but what I saw from them was so different it convinced me to resign and head up the new company [Light Bio] in 2019.

“What they had discovered [outlined by Dr. Karen Sarkisyan and Dr. Ilia Yampolsky in a paper published in Nature Biotechnology] with the glowing mushrooms was the full set of genes to create a system for sustained luminescence. Fungi are really closer to animals than plants in many ways, but if you look at the basic mechanism for how bioluminescence works inside mushrooms, it uses the same components, the same metabolites as one of the most central pathways in all plants [converting caffeic acid into lignin]. Seeing that metabolic synergy is how I knew this was going to work.”

How Light Bio’s tech works: In bioluminescent mushrooms, caffeic acid is converted to a light-emitting compound called luciferin via an enzymatic process. Luciferin then oxidizes to produce photons (light).

While plants also contain caffeic acid, which they use to build lignin in their cell walls, they don’t produce the enzymes involved in the metabolic process described above. By introducing genes from naturally bioluminescent mushrooms that code for these enzymes, Light Bio can make its plants glow in the dark.

In its petunias, two enzymes convert the caffeic acid into luciferin, which is then oxidized by a third enzyme to produce light. A fourth enzyme converts the oxidized molecule back to caffeic acid to start the cycle all over again.

“Light Bio is bringing us leaps and bounds closer to our solarpunk dream of living in Avatar’s Pandora. This achievement isn’t just novel and exciting — it shows how the power of synthetic biology can light a passion for nature and technology.” Jason Kelly, cofounder and CEO, Ginkgo Bioworks 

Light Bio - Firefly Petunia plants
One plant costs $29 and customers will start receiving plants in April. Image credit: Light Bio

Collaboration with Ginkgo Bioworks: ‘We can make the plants 10x brighter’

Over the past couple of years, Light Bio has been working with synthetic biology specialist Ginkgo Bioworks to optimize the process to create plants that are progressively brighter.

This work, documented in Nature Methods, details genetic modifications which enhance bioluminescence in a variety of plants by up to 100 times, explained Wood.

“Working with Ginkgo Bioworks, we think we can make plants with more colors and at least 10-fold brighter, because the enzymes we’ve got from the luminous mushrooms are naturally optimized to work inside fungi, not plants, so we are working to optimize them.”

How does your garden glow?

Light Bio, which has raised $2m in seed funding from backers including NFX, is initially adopting a direct-to-consumer approach, but is building relationships with breeders and growers to take the plants to a wider market as it builds up stocks, says Wood.

“All the expense and difficulty was in creating the initial plant. But now we’ve done it, the seeds carry the genes and their progeny have the bioluminescence. And in all other aspects, the petunias appear indistinguishable from unmodified petunias.”

He added: “The investor [Dr. Omri Amirav-Drory] representing Tech.Bio [now NFX] was one of the cofounders of Glowing Plants [a startup developing bioluminescent plants using genes from bacteria], so he knew from personal experience that the bacteria approach wasn’t going to work and was excited enough about what we brought to the table to make a major investment. Our patents also cover basic aspects of fungal bioluminescence and its application to glowing plants, so they are very broad.”

Growers and breeders Light Bio has talked to “are excited about it, but we’re just getting started,” he said. “So a lot depends on how this initial launch goes. We’ve got 50,000 plants and a wait list of 10,000 people, so a lot of the plants are already earmarked.”

As for the consumer appeal of recreating a scene from the movie Avatar in your living room or backyard, he said, “Biotech can solve important practical problems, but we can also use the technology to bring enjoyment to people’s lives. And when you see people react to these plants, they just love them, it’s just magical and looking at a photograph doesn’t really capture it.”

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