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Organic, bacterial bioluminescent lights

Image credit: Philips Design/Tumblr

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Muhammad M Rahman
Muhammad M Rahman Feb 25, 2021
The benefits of solar lighting are only seen in optimal conditions i.e. lots of bright and uninterrupted sunlight which automatically rules out solar lights for some people based on geographic location. Interestingly there are insects like fireflies as well as deep sea fish that can generate light organically therefore, I propose the use of genetically modified bacteria to produce and maintain bioluminescent light.

The light is generated by chemical reactions and specific luciferase proteins that the bacteria uses to constantly produce light. Bacteria are highly resilient and can be genetically modified to enhance certain features so here you would modify the bacteria to promote production of lots of bioluminescent protein also, add traits to enhance survival and growth etc. The maintenance of these bacterial lights would be the same way you look after plants so imagine a glass container with bacteria that you feed occasionally with water and specific nutrients that can glow bright and consistently without the need for electricity. With time and testing, you could take traits of bacteria that can survive extreme temperature like volcanic extremophile bacteria, to enhance the lights.

A practical use for this would be to use bacterial lights in conjunction with street lights, perhaps the electrical lamps turn themselves on later if the bacterial light provides additional brightness at dusk thus saving electricity.

The idea is not novel as Philips have presented their concept from 2011 as well as the ‘biopixel’ chips created by UC San Diego but I wanted to take this further by looking at the real world applications for bacterial lights. What else can be done with bacterial lights? What other modifications could be made to the bacteria? How can we bring this idea closer to reality?

[1]https://www.artandsciencejournal.com/post/26217329425/philips-bio-light-bacteria-as-energy-source

[2]https://ucsdnews.ucsd.edu/pressrelease/researchers_create_living_neon_signs_composed_of_millions_of_glowing_bacter/

[3]Baldwin, T.O., Christopher, J.A., Raushel, F.M., Sinclair, J.F., Ziegler, M.M., Fisher, A.J., and Rayment, I. (1995) Structure of bacterial luciferase. Curr. Opin. Struct. Biol. 5: 798-809.

[4]Meighen, E.A. (1993) Bacterial bioluminescence: organization, regulation, and application of the lux genes. FASEB J. 7: 1016-1022.

[5]Tu, S.C., and Mager, H.I. (1995) Biochemistry of bacterial bioluminescence. Photochem. Photobiol. 62: 615-624.

[6]Nealson, K.H., and Hastings, J.W. (1979) Bacterial bioluminescence: its control and ecological significance. Microbiol Rev. 43: 496-518.

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Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain Feb 26, 2021
Using bioluminescence for lighting purposes would really be great if we could develop systems for the same. However, though the technique ( given its occurrence in nature) seems like not-so-hard to implement, there could be some conditions that we need to meet (or some issues that should be thought about) before investing resources and time in it, especially when we are targeting a large-scale application. To start with, the development of a bacterial strain that can emit light is not so challenging ( as has been done in the research papers you included as references) with genetic engineering. However, this has been all achieved at the laboratory scale. To use these strains at a commercial-scale means we need a very high genetic fidelity of the strains that can maintain the bioluminescent properties over a sufficiently large number of generations without any defective mutations.
Another very crucial point to be considered is the energy demand (in terms of nutrition) of these bacteria. Are there any predefined media for such luminescence optimised strains? How does the media component affect the property of the light (intensity/flux) that is emitted?
How difficult is it to obtain a sufficiently large quorum (or say volume) of these bacteria such that the accumulated light that is emitted is of the required intensity? With time, the feed ( media ) is exhausted, how do we optimize the feed-in/feed-out process? Another point I would like to include is that when you mentioned that multiple features (for eg bioluminscent protein production, and traits that guarantee higher survival) could be developed, do we not first assess the compatibility of these features? What if they are negatively associated? For example, how do we guarantee that the strain that produces the brightest of the luciferase enzyme is the best at surviving in the given XYZ conditions? What if the survival rate is high only when the luminescence is compromised (and vice versa)? You have mentioned that using a glass container would be one of the option to culture these bacteria. One problem with it could be that if the strains we are using are the kinds that generate biofilms, it might hamper with the efficiency of the system. Another very pragmatic problem I can imagine is the difficulty in the media exchange/refilling process once the nutrients are exhausted. Nevertheless, from a perspective of a scientist, these tehcnical hurdles surely can be overcome some day with the right kind of tech and research. However, at the end of the day, even when all of this is figured out, is it still economically viable option to use as a lighting source?
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Muhammad M Rahman
Muhammad M Rahman5 months ago
Great comments. Bacteria are highly proliferative so when I have cultured E.coli for example they can very quickly take over a culture and if they were immortalised, I expect that they would become more resistant and resilient. Additionally, plasmids with drug mediated ‘on’ and ‘off’ genes (Tetracycline or Tamoxifen induced systems) could be used to control certain genes. Regarding mutations, if the bacteria lose efficiency you could repopulate with fresh bacteria that have drug resistance and clear the old bacteria with the drug; that way the bacterial chamber or entire light will not need replacing.

In terms of nutrition, it would be a good idea to research bacteria that can withstand harsh environments which is why I suggested to use extremophile traits. In places that are very hot, you would want the bacteria to be able to survive better. This also extends to feeding the bacteria as some strains can survive in low nutrient environments. This would take a fair amount of research to generate optimised bacteria but a big advantage is the system being organic and environmentally friendly.

To feed these bacteria, there could be a pill you insert that diffuses over time or a solution that you add. Beyond this, there are also photosynthetic bacteria that convert sunlight to energy so perhaps bioluminescence protein expression could be incorporated here. While the development for such a system will be expensive, the concept of having a non-electric light source should definitely be considered and while this may not be sufficient as the main light source, even if you combine with a traditional bulb it would allow you to use less electricity to achieve the same level of brightness. Furthermore, even the use of mirrors and reflectors could ‘multiply’ the light so providing that the system itself is optimised, I imagine the idea would develop in more practical ways.

Using the system for aesthetic purposes

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Povilas S
Povilas S Feb 27, 2021
If not as a proper lighting source, it could surely be used for artistic/decorative purposes and I think some people would be willing to pay quite a lot of money for such systems, cause the concept is very attractive. So this could find a specific place in business.

I thought about Subash's remark concerning the refilling of the container once the nutrients are exhausted. It would be cool (and maybe not so difficult to do) if an enclosed micro-ecosystem could be formed, involving either a few types of microorganisms or maybe some multicellular ones too so that there would be no undesired waste products and on top of that having the whole living ecosystem would make the concept even more attractive.

Also, for such purposes, it might be enough to use natural bioluminescent bacteria instead of genetically engineered ones. Naturalness increases aesthetic value. A lot of bioluminescent bacteria species form symbiotic relationships with animals. This is all convenient for forming a natural, bioluminescent, fully or partially self-sustaining enclosed ecosystem. A glowing aquarium essentially. On the other hand, using only microorganisms would give the benefit of flexibility and possibilities to implement such decorative lights into interior design and use them in other creative ways.

[1]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bioluminescent_bacteria

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Muhammad M Rahman
Muhammad M Rahman5 months ago
Great idea to use a diverse range of bacteria in a single system, it would be a means to incorporate photosynthetic bacteria as a natural energy source. As an art piece I believe this would be beautiful and if random numbers of bacteria are used, the light pattern and intensity would be unique for each piece.

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General comments

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Povilas S
Povilas S5 months ago
Muhammad M Rahman "With time and testing, you could take traits of bacteria that can survive extreme temperature like volcanic extremophile bacteria, to enhance the lights." Why do you think extremophile bacteria would enhance the lights?
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Muhammad M Rahman
Muhammad M Rahman5 months ago
Povilas S I don’t think extremophile traits will enhance the light intensity or quality but certain traits would increase longevity of the bacteria so it would be worthwhile to explore this further.