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Science has developed petunias that glow in the dark

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Want to light up your life? What about a glow in the dark petunia? A genetically modified version of the flower actually generates its own light, like B.J. Leiderman, who does our theme music. And they're now on sale. Sasa Woodruff with Boise State Public Radio explains how flowers that light up the night came to be.

SASA WOODRUFF, BYLINE: Hello.

KEITH WOOD: Sasa.

WOODRUFF: Hi.

WOOD: Well, you chose a good day to drive up, didn't you?

WOODRUFF: I meet Keith Wood at his home in Ketchum, Idaho, and we head down a built in ladder to a windowless basement.

WOOD: And we keep it quarantined down here, so we keep it away from possible pathogens or viruses.

WOODRUFF: We walk over to a black, closet-sized grow tent with silver lining and bright lights inside.

Oh, wow. They're beautiful.

Nestled under the lights are trays of white, bell-shaped flowers. They look like what you'd find in garden nurseries, but actually, they're doing something extraordinary.

WOOD: The plants are putting out a constant amount of light. They do day and night. They never change.

WOODRUFF: He turns off the lights and the flowers slowly emerge from the dark, with the flower buds shining the brightest.

WOOD: That's why we call it the firefly petunia, because these bright buds resemble fireflies sitting on top of the plant.

WOODRUFF: And just like fireflies, they are bioluminescent. Bioluminescent organisms generate their own light. Since the '80s, Wood has been at the forefront of bioluminescence research and was part of the team that modified a tobacco plant with a firefly gene, work that eventually helped pharmaceutical developers. There have been other tries to make decorative, glowing plants, but the petunias are the first to generate light continuously using the metabolic cycle of a bioluminescent mushroom.

WOOD: We saw a kind of natural synergy between how that bioluminescence works and the natural metabolism in plants.

WOODRUFF: Despite its name, the petunia doesn't have any firefly genes, but rather five genes from mushrooms. The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved the flower in fall, and online plant sales started in February. Diane Blazek, the executive director of the National Garden Bureau, an educational nonprofit, says customers are always looking for the next new thing.

DIANE BLAZEK: Oh, grandma grew petunias, but oh, look, now I've got a petunia that glows in the dark. So this is really cool.

WOODRUFF: Decorative garden sales are big business in the U.S. In 2022, the USDA reports the value of flowering and ornamental plants was almost $6.7 billion. And since COVID, sales continue to grow. Chris Beytes at Ball Publishing, who oversees a number of horticulture publications, says the firefly petunia could open up gardening to new customers.

CHRIS BEYTES: 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.

WOODRUFF: And while the firefly petunia may not have any practical implications for things like drug advances or crop production, Wood sees this plant as something more.

WOOD: People don't think about scientists just bringing joy to our lives. 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.

WOODRUFF: And this summer, that magic could be sitting on your patio, watching your garden glow from the light of a petunia. For NPR News, I'm Sasa Woodruff. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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