IMAGINE taking a midnight stroll, your route lit by row upon row of trees glowing a ghostly blue…

If work by a team of undergraduates at the University of Cambridge pans out, bioluminescent trees could one day be giving our streets this dreamlike look. The students have taken the first step on this road by developing genetic tools that allow bioluminescence traits to be easily transferred into an organism.

Nature is full of glow-in-the-dark critters, but their shine is feeble – far too weak to read by, for example. To boost this light, the team, who were participating in the annual International Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM), modified genetic material from fireflies and the luminescent marine bacterium Vibrio fischeri to boost the production and activity of light-yielding enzymes. They then made further modifications to create genetic components or “BioBricks” that can be inserted into a genome.

The team managed to produce a range of colours by putting these genes into the Escherichia coli bacterium. They found that a volume of bacterial culture about the size of a regular wine bottle gave off enough light to read by.

“We didn’t end up making bioluminescent trees, which was the inspiration for the project,” says team member Theo Sanderson, who is studying genetics. “But we decided to make a set of parts that would allow future researchers to use bioluminescence more effectively.” The team presented its findings earlier this month at the iGEM Jamboree, held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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