As the old saying goes, mother knows best. Many scientists, however, would argue that Mother Nature knows best.
Increasingly, researchers are turning to nature for inspiration and innovative solutions to human problems. From “green” cement to sustainable architecture to self-cleaning paint products, scientists and inventors are tapping into the power of this new field—biomimicry—to help them design more effective products.
Although there are many ways in which nature has inspired innovation, a hot topic among scientists studying biomimicry is bioluminescence, or the production of light by living organisms. Studying species ranging from deep-ocean dwellers—including fish, bacteria, and jellies—to fireflies, researchers are examining bioluminescent properties with an eye toward their potential human uses. While researchers are confident they understand the science of bioluminescence in nature, taking that property out of its biological environment and repurposing it for the human world has proven tricky.
“Evolution does a very good job of designing things to do what it wants them to do,” says Theo Sanderson, a geneticist at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in the United Kingdom.
The difficulty is in adapting these properties for new uses. “We have a light-emitting system that is very good at functioning in the context of a bacterium and to emit the amount of light a bacterium needs to emit. When you transfer that over to other systems, there will be quite different biochemistry.”
Sanderson’s experience with bioluminescence and biomimicry dates to 2010, when he and his colleagues at Cambridge University entered the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition.
"We imagined that perhaps in the future, rather than erecting streetlights, people might be able to plant glowing trees," he says.
To explore this idea, the team did some genetic modification. They took part of the DNA sequence of Aliivibrio fischeri, a bioluminescent bacterium that lives in symbiosis with squid, and inserted it into Escherichia coli, allowing E.coli to give off light. The project was cleverly dubbed “E. glowli.”
Though the Cambridge team ultimately wasn’t able to produce bioluminescent trees, the “BioBrick” they did produce was later used by researchers at Peking University as part of the 2011 iGEM. The Peking researchers used the BioBrick to allow bacteria in different flasks to communicate by sending light signals.
Other researchers are exploring different potential applications for bioluminescence. Mathew Maye, a chemist at Syracuse University, works with an interdisciplinary team to explore bioluminescent properties at the nanoscale. Simply put, Maye’s team wants to “use biology for non-biological purposes.”
Maye and his team use luciferase—an enzyme first identified in fireflies—to carry out their experiments. When luciferase interacts with luciferin, a related compound, the chemical reaction produces light. Maye’s team is exploring applications that include identifying the presence of certain toxins within a system and lighting extremely small spaces. Currently, the team is trying to “completely understand the process and to judge the complete brightness of the system.”
One issue that both Maye and Sanderson have confronted is how to make the light system self-sustaining. As Sanderson says, “We don’t know how to make the fuel that the luciferase runs on [luciferin], and that means that it’s expensive to work with because you have to add that fuel.”
Until researchers find a way to make the system “recyclable,” we may not see bioluminescent technology used to light our streets.
Serious breakthroughs, however, may be around the corner. “We’re continually finding new, interesting scientific discoveries . . . that will help us to design the next generation,” Maye says. "I would say that there will be some type of bioluminescent lighting within the next five to ten years. Especially if you can make it somehow replenishable or recyclable.”
The iGEM competition, which launched Sanderson into the field of biomimicry, is held annually and supported by partners like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and software giant Autodesk. Maye’s research is funded in part by the Air Force and the Department of Defense. With the wide variety of potential applications for this technology, it’s no wonder both public and private industry are lining up to find out how they can take advantage of this emerging knowledge.
Beyond the many practical applications of bioluminescent technology, biomimicry has captured researchers’ attention based on something far more fundamental: human curiosity.
As Sanderson says, “When you see what nature can achieve and the amazing diversity of things it can do—emitting light, producing incredibly strong substances—if you imagine what mankind could do if it could harness that power, it’s an exciting area to work in.”