The town in France that wants to light up with living organisms

In a quiet room at a coronavirus vaccination center in Rambouillet, a small French town about 50 kilometers southwest of Paris, soft blue light emanates from a row of tubes.

In the near future, the same blue glow will illuminate the nearby Place André Thomé and Jacqueline Thomé-Patenôtre.

But unlike standard streetlights, which often give off a strong glow and need to be connected to mains power, these lights are powered by living organisms through a process known as bioluminescence.

This phenomenon, in which chemical reactions within an organism’s body produce light, can be observed in many places in nature.

Organisms as diverse as fireflies, fungi, and fish have the ability to glow through bioluminescence: is present in 76% of deep-sea creatures.

These experiments are also underway throughout France, including at the capital’s Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle airport.

natural variety

Examples of bioluminescence in the natural world are many.

Fireflies light up to attract mates, while some species of algae glow when the surrounding water is stirred.

The anglerfish (a deep-sea fish) allows bioluminescent bacteria to settle in a lobe on its head as a tempting lure for prey.

Most bioluminescent ocean species emit a blue-green light that, due to the colors’ shorter wavelengths, can travel farther into the ocean.

Some fireflies and certain snails glow yellow, and the so-called “railroad worm,” a beetle larva native to the Americas, is known to turn red and greenish-yellow in a pattern that resembles a train at night.

Some nocturnal rodents found in southern Africa have even been found to have hair that produces a deep pink biofluorescent glow.

the lights of france

The turquoise blue glow in the waiting room at Rambouillet comes from a marine bacteria collected off the coast of France called Aliivibrio fischeri.

The bacteria are stored inside tubes filled with salt water, allowing them to circulate in a kind of luminous aquarium.

Since light is generated through internal biochemical processes that are part of the body’s normal metabolism, its operation requires almost no more energy than is needed to produce the food that the bacteria consume.

Brett Chatwin

A mix of basic nutrients is added and air is pumped through the water to provide oxygen.

To “turn off the lights”, the air is simply cut off, stopping the process by sending the bacteria into an anaerobic state where they do not produce bioluminescence.

“Our goal is to change the way cities use light,” says Sandra Rey, founder of the French startup gloweewhich is behind the project in Rambouillet.

“We want to create an environment that better respects citizens, the environment and biodiversity and impose this new philosophy of light as a real alternative.”

Proponents of the project argue that bioluminescence produced by bacteria could be a sustainable and energy-efficient way to light our lives.

The way we currently produce light, Rey argues, has changed little since the first light bulb was developed in 1879.

Although the LED light bulb, which emerged in the 1960s, has significantly reduced lighting operating costs, it still relies on electricity, which is largely produced by burning fossil fuels.

glowee

Founded in 2014, glowee is developing a theoretically infinitely renewable liquid feedstock made from bioluminescent microorganisms.

It is grown in saltwater aquariums before being packed in tubes.

The manufacturing process, Rey says, uses less water than making LED lights and releases less CO2, while the liquid is also biodegradable.

The lights also use less electricity to operate than LEDs, according to the company, although Glowee bulbs produce less light intensity than most modern LED bulbs.

Glowee's lights

glowee
Glowee’s lights.

While Glowee’s lights are currently only available in standard event tubes, the company plans to soon produce various types of street furniture, such as outdoor benches, with built-in lighting.

In 2019, Rambouillet City Council entered into a partnership with Glowee and invested $109,000 to turn the city into “a large-scale bioluminescence laboratory.”

Guillaume Douet, Rambouillet’s head of public spaces, believes that if the experiment is successful, it could lead to a transformation across the country.

“This is a city of tomorrow,” says Douet. “If the prototype really works, we can implement it on a large scale and replace the current lighting systems.”

The uses of bioluminescence

Bioluminescence studies are not new.

Around the year 350 a. C., the Greek philosopher Aristotle described the bioluminescence in fireflies as a type of “cold” light.

Coal miners have used jarred fireflies as lighting in mines where any kind of flame, even a candle, could trigger a deadly explosion.

Fireflies

Getty Images

Meanwhile, tribes in India have used glowing mushrooms for years to illuminate dense jungles.

However, Glowee is the first company in the world to reach this level of experimentation and says that it is in negotiations with 40 cities in France, Belgium, Switzerland and Portugal.

ERDF, a majority state-owned company that runs France’s power grid, is among Glowee’s sponsors; the European Commission has provided US$1.9 million in funding and the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research (Inserm) has provided technical assistance and support.

The challenges

Carl Johnson, a professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, believes there are still serious challenges ahead before bioluminescence can get the green light for large-scale implementation.

“First, you have to feed the bacteria and dilute them as they grow,” he says.

“That’s not so easy. Also, the phenomenon will be very temperature dependent and I doubt it will work in the winter. Third, bioluminescence is very dim compared to electrical lighting,” he adds.

Glowee’s Rey acknowledges the challenges ahead, but insists the benefits, both ecological and economic, could see future cities bathed in bacterial blue light.

Fungus

Getty Images

Evry’s team is currently working to increase the intensity of the light produced by bacteria, which for now only lasts days or weeks before requiring more nutrients and is still not as strong as LED lights.

So far, Glowee says its bacteria can produce a brightness output of 15 lumens per square meter, below, but not far from, the minimum of 25 per square meter that it believes is required for public lighting in parks and gardens.

By comparison, a 220-lumen LED household bulb can produce about 111 lumens per square meter of floor space.

“We are making progress little by little,” he says. “But we have already made huge strides and our philosophy of light is a response to the crisis facing humanity.”

Catrin Williams, a professor at Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences who has studied bioluminescence in bacteria, agrees that it is “difficult” to maintain long-term live bacterial cultures due to the need for nutrient supply.

But Williams says this could be overcome by focusing on “chemiluminescence,” a process Glowee is also currently investigating, which eliminates the need for live bacteria.

Instead, the enzyme responsible for bioluminescence, luciferase, can theoretically be extracted from bacteria and used to produce light.

“I think Glowee’s approach is extremely novel and innovative and could be fantastic,” says Williams.

Other initiatives

Other initiatives around the world are providing more rays of hope.

Nyoka Design Labsbased in Vancouver, is developing a biodegradable alternative to glow sticks using non-living, cell-free enzymes that the creators say are much easier to maintain than live bacteria.

“Instead of using the entire car, we just took off the headlights,” says Paige Whitehead, founder and CEO.

“Enzymology has advanced to the point where we no longer have to rely on cell-supported systems,” he adds.

Fireflies

Getty Images
Fireflies have been studied since ancient times.

Once used, glow sticks cannot be recycled due to the mix of chemicals they contain.

They are used in a wide range of applications, from police and military uses to music festivals.

Some researchers have raised concerns about the effect of the chemicals they contain on marine life, as they are also often used as lures in long-line fishing.

“Much of this waste is unnecessary,” says Whitehead. “The vision that we seek is to replace any alternative lighting system to make them more sustainable.”

In a major advance for that vision, a study published in April 2020 revealed that a team of Russian bioengineers working with a Moscow-based biotech startup have created a method of maintaining bioluminescence in plants.

They claim they were able to make the plants glow 10 times brighter and longer than previous efforts, producing more than 10 billion photons per minute, by bioengineering fungal bioluminescent genes into the plants.

The new research built on findings that identified a fungal version of luciferin, one of the unique compounds that is required for bioluminescence, along with the enzymes luciferase or photoprotein.

Keith Wood, a scientist who 30 years ago created the first luminescent plant using a gene from fireflies, says the technology could partly replace artificial lighting such as LEDs.

More recently, he discovered that by altering the genetic structure of a luciferase found in the deep-sea shrimp Oplophorus gracilirostris, their brightness could be increased. 2.5 million times.

lights

Getty Images

The resulting enzyme, which the researchers named NanoLuc, was also 150 times brighter than the luciferases found in fireflies.

“The application of synthetic biology to bioluminescence is a great opportunity,” says Wood, who is now developing a bioluminescent plant for the company Light Bio.

But exactly how these transgenic bioluminescent plants might be used in the future has yet to be decided.


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The town in France that wants to light up with living organisms