Could Jellyfish Lead to the Ultimate in Energy-Efficient Christmas Tree Lighting?

By Jonathan Marshall

When it comes to lighting Christmas trees and other holiday venues, PG&E’s energy-efficiency experts are big fans of long-lasting, low-wattage LED lights. Their annual energy bill runs only one-tenth as much as an equivalent string of mini-incandescent bulbs.

But what if you could make your tree light up with zero energy cost, with a totally renewable product, and no hazards from energized cords? That would be revolutionary.

Some day, Christmas trees like the one in the lobby of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, might be illuminated by a bacteria that produces fluorescence in jellyfish and fireflies. (Photo by Matt Nauman.)

A team of five British graduate students at the University of Hertfordshire in the U.K. think it’s possible — and presented the idea recently in a biotechnology competition.

Their scheme is firmly grounded in the science of genetic engineering. They propose to use harmless bacteria to genetically transplant into tree seedlings two genes that produce fluorescence in jellyfish and fireflies. The genes would induce the plant to synthesize green fluorescent protein and an enzyme called luciferase. Together they would produce light when the tree is fed a fertilizer laced with luciferin.

Hey, it would be more natural than an aluminum tree, and not nearly as creepy as this green-glowing mouse, or the transgenic Ruby Puppy created by a team of South Korean scientists. That mutant canine glows red when exposed to ultraviolet light.

The one student willing to speak on the record, Katy Presland, said, “It is quite feasible. The only problem in reality is the cost. We calculate that the initial trees would cost about £200 (about $325 U.S. dollars), which means going for the upper end of the market. But I’m sure a lot of people would love them, especially the Americans.”

I’m not sure, but I guess we should take that as a compliment.

Others have proposed using glowing plants to light up highways at night. Presland says the team’s idea could also be used as a crop disease marker, using plants that glow if they become infected. But she does draw the line somewhere.

“I wouldn’t go so far as glowing kids,” says this mother of 10-year-old daughter.

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