MIT scientists use nanoparticles to engineer glowing plants
Imagine reading by plant light, and glow-in-the-dark trees instead of street lamps. That's on the horizon thanks to these engineers.
New research funded by the U.S. Department of Energy may produce plants that will eventually be able to provide enough light to replace street lamps. This could lead to serious energy savings given the fact that lighting currently accounts for about 20% of worldwide energy consumption.
In a paper published in the journal Nano Letters, scientists from MIT, University of California Riverside, and University of California Berkley, describe their process of using nanotechnology to deliver an enzyme found in fireflies to plant leaves in order to make them emit light.
So far, the researchers have managed to produce kale, arugula, spinach and watercress that can glow for almost four hours. Michael Strano, the Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT and senior author of the study says:
“The vision is to make a plant that will function as a desk lamp—a lamp that you don't have to plug in. The light is ultimately powered by the energy metabolism of the plant itself."
The scientists used three separate molecules and packaged them in different nanoparticle carriers that deliver them to the appropriate part of the plant. The reaction that produces the light requires an enzyme called luciferase (which is found in fireflies) that acts on a molecule called liciferin. Another molecule called co-enzyme A helps the process along by removing a reaction byproduct.
This approach is much more efficient and less laborious compared to past attempts to design glowing plants based on genetically engineering them to produce the chemical reaction. The new method requires simply soaking the leaves in liquid and thus can be applied to various types of plants. Imagine streetlights replaced by glowing trees or being able to quickly turn the nearby anthurium into a desk lamp.
This is not the first time MIT has been tinkering with plants. As Strano says, “Plants can self-repair, they have their own energy, and they are already adapted to the outdoor environment," which makes them great for experimentation with nanobionics. In the past his lab has designed plants that can detect explosives, as well as plants that can monitor drought conditions.
Currently, the light emitted from the plants is about a thousandth of the level required to read by, but the scientists are looking forward to further optimizing their technology. For the future versions they hope to make the light much brighter and to also develop a way to spray the nanoparticles onto plant leaves.
“Our target is to perform one treatment when the plant is a seedling or a mature plant, and have it last for the lifetime of the plant," Strano says. “Our work very seriously opens up the doorway to streetlamps that are nothing but treated trees, and to indirect lighting around homes."
Another feature the researchers have already demonstrated is turning the light off by introducing a fourth molecule. This could eventually create plants that can shut off their light in response to an outside stimulus like sunlight.
Plant lamps could also have a huge impact on education in developing nations, as technology entrepreneur Vivek Wadhwa explains:
"When people in remote parts of India, Africa, South America come home, they can't study because they don't have light. This is something we can't comprehend in America: that you don't have light, you can't study, therefore children don't get education. But this is a common problem in the developing world."
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Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.
- The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
- Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
- These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.
Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.
A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.
Rethinking humanity's origin story
The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.
David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.
The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.
Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"
He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.
It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.
"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."
Migrating out of Africa
In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.
Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.
The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.
The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.
Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.
Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.
Did we head east or south of Eden?
Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.
Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.
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