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Potting

A New Petunia With a Special Glow

By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

Recently I received information about a unique plant that’s coming on the market this spring. I mean, truly unique, as in there’s nothing else like it. It’s a petunia. So what, you say. Petunias are a dime a dozen.

Not this one. In daytime there’s nothing remarkable about it. It’s just another ordinary white petunia. But once the sun goes down, the difference becomes obvious. The plant glows in the dark. And I don’t mean that the white flowers reflect moonlight. I mean the entire plant glows, all by itself.

It’s called the Firefly™ Petunia. Photographs show a plant with a greenish glow coming from the leaves and even more brightly from the flowers. It glows because it has been genetically engineered to be bioluminescent. Light Bio, the company that developed the petunia, calls it “living light.”

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Photograph courtesy of Light Bio.

What is bioluminescence? The dictionary defines it as “the biochemical emission of light by living organisms such as fireflies and deep-sea fishes.”

In nature, bioluminescence is found primarily in the ocean, in fish, jellyfish, squid, and other underwater creatures. It also occurs in fungi, insects, algae, and bacteria. The most well-known bioluminescent creature is the firefly.

The scientists at Light Bio, which calls itself a synthetic biology startup, genetically modify herbaceous plants using genes from bioluminescent mushrooms. They started with petunias because they are well-known and easy to grow, but have inserted the genes into other plants, including chrysanthemums.

And there are more plants on the horizon. The company is partnering with Gingko Bioworks to create plant varieties that glow even brighter than Firefly. They are also working on developing plants that glow in colors.

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Photograph courtesy of Light Bio.

The Firefly™ Petunia is $29 for a single, 4-inch pot. It can be ordered directly from Light Bio. The company says a single plant will grow to be 8-10 inches wide. Shipping begins in April. The petunias have been approved by the US Department of Agriculture as safe for cultivation.

There are no special care requirements or techniques needed to keep the plant glowing. The company says that the light is strongest on newer growth and in the flowers.

I’m of two minds when it comes to what to think about glow-in-the-dark plants. There’s certainly a gee-whiz, science fiction-y fascination to them. And it’s pretty in a spooky way. I’d like to see what one looks like in person, although to be honest, I’m not spending $29 to find out.

But there’s something weird about them, too. Sure, growers fiddle with plant traits all the time, selecting for color, flavor, hardiness, and insect- and disease resistance, among other things. Yet there are no bioluminescent plants in nature. In this instance, an ability to glow doesn’t seem to benefit the plant in any way. It serves no purpose other than to entertain us.

And while there may not be any harm in that, I can’t quite get comfortable with the idea, can’t stop thinking about the law of unintended consequences. I mean, just because humans have the technology to create a glowing petunia, does that mean we should?

 


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