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?
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?
Using the system for aesthetic purposes
Povilas SFeb 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.