Glow-in-the-dark bacterial lights reduce light pollution

The bluish-green hue from bioluminescent light, obtained from extracted sea creature protein, is an ever-closer means to illuminate our night-time environments, casting a vivid and ghostly appearance on the infrastructure it floods its light upon.

Bioluminescent light results from a chemical reaction that certain creatures and plants naturally produce. Unlike incandescent light which is generated by electricity, bioluminescent light does not involve electricity. Instead, it is regulated by genetics, triggered by movement, and produced by the reaction between various chemicals: luciferin (substrate) and photoprotein or luciferase.

The creation of sustainable light sources which exert less light pollution is increasingly important as illuminating our night-times with electrical power is resulting in long-term stress on our ecosystem. Light is a highly influential regulator of animal activity, influencing a variety of behaviours- from courtship to migration, and the long-term use of artificial light consequently alters these natural activities. Flowering plants are also affected by electrical light, which as a result modifies insects (such as bees) daytime and night-time behaviours. Light pollution, however, is not only problematic for animal welfare but also for humanity’s wellbeing as the level of light pollution correlates with levels of depression, obesity, and even cancer.

As society grows more mindful of the adverse effects that the large amount of energy consumption has on the environment, an increased need for sustainable lighting has created a gap in the market for those developing alternative lighting resources. Not only a vital component for our lifestyle, illuminating architecture at night allows us to see structures differently; lighting up the design of windows and facades, for example, gives buildings personalities that are not always apparent in natural light. Consequently, the race is on to create a reliable product that effectively illuminates our built environment without causing the long-term damage that artificial light does.  

In 2011,  Eduardo Mayoral, a doctoral student at Seville University created a proposal for the creation of bioluminescent devices using vibrio fischeri (a marine bacterium) and pyrocystis fusiformis (a unicellular planktonic). Mayoral’s proposal was one of the first to envisage using bioluminescent light to illuminate public parks, screens and billboards. While this project is still in development, a Parisian startup called Glowee (as featured in Night Time is the Right Time) has also grasped this opportunity and uses bioluminescent bacteria found in a squid species to create microbial lamps for public spaces.

Developed by industrial design graduate, Sandra Rey, Glowee’s goal is to tackle environmental damage by creating a lighting system that ensures the lowest environmental impact. Predicted to be launched later on this year, Glowee’s light is envisaged to gleam across Paris’s buildings, illuminating the beauty of the French capital’s architecture at night.

But how does Glowee glow? The startup extracts bioluminescent genetics from the Hawaiian bobtail squid- its bioluminescent ability allows the squid to hunt, yet prevents a shadow upon the squid that would attract predators and prevent food capture. Once the genetics have been extracted, Glowee modifies the DNA coding of the bioluminescent protein, and the bioluminescent light can be altered to be more or less intense. Glowee then incorporates the modified material with E.Coli, which is then placed in small devices, containing nutrients and 02, which the bacteria can feed off. The final product is kept within small pods that resemble light bulbs, each of which varies in size.

An ongoing challenge for Glowee this year is to construct bacteria to consume nutrients at a slower rate, (as currently the pods only last for approximately three days at a time). Whatsmore another issue is that bioluminescent light is considerably more fragile than electrical lighting, and the bacteria needs to be at a constant temperature as a fluctuation impacts the bacteria and, therefore, light.

Even if there are no consequences with the use of bioluminescent light, there have been no long-term studies on how creatures in our urban environment (including us) will react and respond to Glowee. As bioluminescent light is not yet as reliable as artificial light, it is not a quick fix but the steps taken by Glowee are considerably large leaps into the development of sustainable lighting. 

Image credits: Glowee 

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