cities already test bioluminescence

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 style Garcilaso de la Vega; 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 managed to capture the attention of institutions and show what they are capable of in public spaces.

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 they share 76% of sea creatures and can be reached from abyssal fish y squid a krill o began. The phenomenon extends to other animals, such as fireflies, certain worms or springhares from southern Africa. Basically, it consists of a biochemical reaction that manifests itself in the form of light and in which the luciferase enzymethe protein luciferin, oxygen and ATP.


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. Gloweea 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 fischerithe one that allows you to shine among others in a mixture of basic nutrients and oxygen. As detailed by the BBCTurning 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. More or less around the same dates, in 2017, it was also launched The Glowing Plan Projecta project with a more or less similar goal that aspires to create bioluminescent plants that can 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 that —thanks to the work with fungal genes— had obtained bioluminescent plants that glowed brighter and for longer than other 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 now he’s 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. Some days ago The BBC published an extensive report about the tests being carried out in Rambouillet, in Yvelines, France, a town where they have already incorporated some of Glowee’s light tubes. 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 Comissionspecifies the BBC— has already granted 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 y streets with systems that, despite the improvements of LED lights, consume electricity generated still largely with fossil fuels. Glowee insures that the manufacture of its tubes with bioluminescent bacteria is more respectful of the environment than that of 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.” reconoce Carl Johnsonfrom Vanderbilt University, to the BBC.

Potency is one of the great challenges for bioluminescence supporters. Especially when we talk about public lighting that must contribute to safety and facilitate, among other issues, road traffic. To this day Glowee’s bacteria can produce a glow-out 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 domestic LED bulb can generate. 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.

Images | Glowee

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