Glow-In-The-Dark Trees Can Light Our Streets, But Should They?

Glow-In-The-Dark Trees offer free "natural" lighting.

Technology exists that could allow glow-in-the dark trees to replace lampposts across the globe. A Dutch designer by the name of Daan Rooegaarde is working on bio-luminescent trees with the vision that they will light up city streets, removing energy costs from city lighting completely. The method of making trees glow-in-the-dark involves using genes from glow-in-the dark jellies or bacteria and splicing them into the genetic code of target trees. The idea is remarkably innovative, but is this technology an area we should develop?

Roosegaarde knows it can be done. Inquisitr reported that scientists have already successfully made glow-in-the-dark rabbits and other glow-in-the-dark animals. A research team at the University of Cambridge genetically modified material from luminescent bacteria and fireflies to make glow-in-the-dark BioBricks that use no electricity. Research experiments and glow-in-the-dark non-living objects are one thing, but introducing a genetically engineered species of trees and then decorating our globe with them is completely different.

Before we attempt to alter the very genetic code of trees so that they will better suit our luminescent needs, we should consider the disastrous effects that non-native, natural species have already had on localized ecosystems. Discovery writer Sarah Grace McCandless wrote:

Whether it’s a plant, animal, or other organism (such as a microbe), when a non-native element is introduced into an ecosystem that’s not prepared to handle such things, the impact is usually devastating, both in terms of wiping out habitats and generating significant financial losses as well.

Kudzu, native to Asia, has run amok in the southern U.S. where the vine has no natural predators. The plant now covers over seven million acres. It’s killing trees, breaking power lines, and collapsing buildings. Yes, buildings. It’s pet-name is even “the vine that ate the South.” It was introduced, like the aspirations of Roogaarde, to find a natural solution to a modern-human problem: It was brought in to prevent soil erosion. Another attempt at soil-erosion which turned devastating was the introduction of Japanese knotweed. It is wrecking natural systems from Maine to Minnesota and down to to Louisiana. These plants are natural invaders, deliberately cultivated on our soil by well-intentioned humans. The problem becomes even more critical when the bright-idea involves genetic modification.

Huffington Post reported on evidence that eating GMOs causes tremendous damage to livestock. Apparently, “pigs raised on a diet of GM corn and GM soy had higher rates of intestinal problems, ‘including inflammation of the stomach and small intestine, stomach ulcers, a thinning of intestinal walls and an increase in haemorrhagic bowel disease, where a pig can rapidly bleed-out from their bowel and die.'” Expanded Consciousness argued that GMOs being considered a threat when they are in our foods is worthy of concern. GM trees is a completely different arena, according to the writer. The blogger argued that since we won’t be eating our trees, it should be no big deal. That may be a good point if nothing ate our trees. The fact remains, plenty of species eat our trees including caterpillars, mites, silk worms and beetles. Squirrels, badgers, hedgehogs are just a few of the animals that eat tree leaves. Mice, elephants and rabbits all consume tree bark as a supplement to their diet, just to name a few. Are we so arrogant and greedy as to assume our desire for a beautiful glow-in-the-dark landscape or “cityscape” is more important than ensuring the proliferation of other species?

Perhaps.

Our “kill everything to plant corn and soybeans” aspirations have resulted in the near-obliteration of several species of milkweed that Monarch butterflies relied on for food. We didn’t realize that milkweed is essentially the only food of the Monarch’s larvae and now the species is endangered. We were striving for progress and didn’t consider the implications. We often don’t consider the implications.

Before bio-engineering our most stoic plant-life, we might consider that other options for lighting our world with very little electricity already exist. IFL Science reported on streetlamps illuminated by glowing algae, for example. Last year, a community organization called Soulardarity installed the first solar-powered streetlight in Highland Park, Michigan after a lack of funds had left the city without the ability to provide lighting. Tesla offered the world Radiant Energy in 1889, but the world refused it. While glow-in-the-dark trees would offer a negative carbon footprint, they might also offer other, less appreciated negative footprints. Besides, the problem with our energy crisis is not a lack of innovation, it is a grand-scale refusal to source nearly free energy because of the financial investments of our world’s rulers.

Roosegaarde, a self-declared artist, seems to be more interested in the poetry of glow-in-the dark trees than the actual need to light our world in a more energy-efficient way anyway. He stated, “I mean, come on, it will be incredibly fascinating to have these energy-neutral – but at the same time – incredibly poetic landscapes.” This is not to say there is no place for bio-luminescent foliage. Perhaps Roosegaarde could offer his genetically engineered artistry in a fully-enclosed terrarium at Disneyland or an exotic resort in the Netherlands with an overhead view of the Aurora Borealis. Genetically modified, glow-in-the-dark trees have no place in a natural ecosystem without decades of thorough safety testing and thoughtful consideration to native species.