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Watching your garden glow in the light of a bioluminescent petunia

A long exposure of a bioluminescent petunia whose flowers are glowing green
Sáša Woodruff
Boise State Public Radio
The Firefly Petunia emanates light because it's been modified with genes from a bioluminescent mushroom

Keith Wood, Ph.D. spent most of his career in pharmaceutical research in molecular and chemical biology, using his work with bioluminescence to understand how molecules interacted with diseases. His work started as a graduate student when the team he was on inserted a firefly gene into a tobacco plant.

Scientist Keith Wood in a blue hoodie and tshirt stands by a photograph of a glowing tobacco plant that was genetically modified with a firefly gene.
Sáša Woodruff
Boise State Public Radio
Scientist Keith Wood stands in his Ketchum home with a photo of a tobacco plant modified with a firefly gene

It was a small plant and couldn't sustain light without the addition of a substrate. It wasn't something a consumer would buy, but it was good for understanding pathways within an organism.

Now, about 40 years after that first plant, Wood and his company in Ketchum, Light Bio, are marketing a garden petunia with a twist: it glows in the dark.

"People don't think about science as just bringing joy to our lives," Wood said, "We thought we could do something really special here. We could create a kind of decorative plant that was really just enjoyment, just bringing a kind of magic into our lives."

The petunia with bright, white flowers looks like something you'd buy in spring at a garden nursery. But, when the lights are turned out, the petals slowly start lighting up with a greenish, white glow. The plant is always glowing, it's just our eyes that need to adjust to see the light. The newest buds are the brightest and punctuate the glowing flowers.

"That's why we call it the Firefly Petunia. Because these bright buds resemble fireflies sitting on top of the plant.," Wood explained.

And despite its name, this plant doesn't have any firefly genes, rather four genes from a bioluminescent mushroom and a fifth from a fungi.

"The first gene takes a metabolite and turns it into an intermediate," Wood explained, "The second gene takes the intermediate and turns it into the actual fuel for the bioluminescence. The third gene is what actually makes the light. And then the last gene takes the product from the light reaction and recycles it back to the starting point."

Sáša Woodruff
Boise State Public Radio

This cycle is self-sustaining, which means it shines brightly and doesn't need an extra chemical like the tobacco plant did to light up.

"The [firefly] gene was functional, but it didn't connect seamlessly into the natural metabolic processes," Wood said.

"You've got glow, but it was a weak glow. Not satisfying at all."

It took about 10 years to go from development to approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture last fall.

The plants went on sale online in February and the first ones were shipped out this week.

Diane Blazek, the executive director of the National Garden Bureau, an educational nonprofit, says customers are always looking for the next new plant and petunias are a guaranteed bestseller.

"Grandma grew petunias, but oh, look, now I've got a petunia that glows in the dark. So, this is really cool," Blazek said.

She doesn't think that the fact that it's genetically modified will affect customers buying it because there's a precedent.

Sasa Woodruff
Boise State Public Radio

Seven years ago, an orange petunia modified with a maize gene showed up in gardens and nurseries in Europe and the U.S. The plant was never supposed to leave a closed lab but somehow ended up in lots of gardens. Regulators eventually asked people to destroy the plants and seeds.

"Overwhelmingly, the response was, wait a minute, it's a petunia. We're not eating it. The orange gene came from maize. Why? Why can't we plant this?" Blazek remembered.

Eventually, regulators approved the plants in the U.S.

Chris Beytes, at Ball Publishing, who oversees several horticulture publications, said the Firefly Petunia could open up gardening to new customers.

"If you buy your first plant because it glows in the dark or it's dyed pink, your second and third and 100th plant may be the traditional stuff. You never know," Beytes sai. "Anything that creates excitement around flowers and plants. I'm all for it."

The Firefly Petunia may not have practical implications for things like drug advances or crop production, but for Wood this petunia is transcendent.

Life Bio

"There's something magical about seeing this living presence, this glowing vitality coming from a living plant that in person gives a kind of magical experience that you just can't see in a photograph.

And this summer, that magic could be sitting on the patio watching your garden glow from the light of a petunia.

I moved to Boise in the fall of 2019 to run the Boise State Public Radio newsroom as news director. I help shape the local stories you hear with a phenomenal team of reporters and hosts.

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