Self-lighting
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Self-lighting Christmas trees could be the future thanks to Warwick research

With winter setting in, darkness becomes the norm for most days. Rest assured, though, as Christmas time is around the corner, along with colourful light displays set up in high streets and homes alike! Despite looking awfully cheery and festive, the process of setting up Christmas lights may be much less enjoyable – no one wants to untangle streams of tangled-up lights before draping them over your tree!

Fortunately, scientists from the Integrative Synthetic Biology Centre (WISB) at the University of Warwick have recently developed a theory of self-lighting trees, a concept visualised by the use of Virtual Reality (VR). Glowing trees could become a viable technology in the future due to recent leaps in synthetic biology: an interdisciplinary field combining biology with engineering techniques. Specifically, synthetic biology explores redesigning existing biological components and systems, or creating entirely new systems through advancements in scientific knowledge of genomics.

Scientists at the University of Warwick have recently developed a theory of self-lighting trees, a concept visualised by the use of VR

An infographic released by the University of Warwick describes the process as insertion of synthesised DNA sequences that give fireflies the ability to light up into trees’ DNA, hence enabling the trees to glow in a similar fashion. Fireflies emit light due to a biochemical reaction in their abdomens. Oxygen enters the light organ and reacts with the chemical luciferin in the presence of calcium and adenosine triphosphate, sped up by the enzyme luciferase. As a result, light is produced.

Initially, scientists would synthesise the DNA sequence corresponding to the gene that makes fireflies glow. Afterwards, with the use of gene editing technology CRISPR/Cas9, the tree’s DNA will be cut at a specific location in its strand in order to insert the synthesised DNA. The cell would then ‘weld’ the conjoined sections together, allowing the tree to make use of the new gene and glow. CRISPR would make gene editing like this much cheaper than previous methods due to its simplicity.

With the use of gene editing technology CRISPR/Cas9, the tree’s DNA will be cut at a specific location in its strand in order to insert the synthesised DNA

Furthermore, scientists could utilise trees’ natural ‘body clocks’ to turn the lights on and off, making sure that they only glow when needed. Implications of this new invention may be a replacement of street lights with this much greener alternative. A 2017 report by IoTUK stated that “one third of the world’s roads are still lit by technology dating back to the 1960s, typically consuming approximately 40% of a city’s overall electricity costs.” Hence, self-lighting trees could possibly enable cities to be much more cost efficient and reduce their carbon footprint.

The use of VR in the project demonstrates the capabilities of new technologies in helping us envision concepts that might have been previously implausible. According to Dr Alexander Flemington of the Department of Engineering, “the VR allows us to think about problems differently; working with designers and artists as we developed the experience caused me to reflect on my own work and its place in wider society.”

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