Firefly petunia that glows in the dark
|Credit: Light Bio
Who doesn't get mesmerized by the flickering light coming from the glowing fireflies in the dark? Imagine having a plant that would glow in the dark without needing any extra effort on your part, but just the regular and usual care that all plants need. I would definitely want one for myself and especially when you can get it for just under Rs 2500 ($29). Sounds like a cool Valentine's gift!
Firefly petunia are now open for pre booking on Light Bio's website - the makers of bioluminescent plants - but for now they are only available in the USA. Fireflies have an enzyme - luciferase that generates light via a chemical reaction. Luciferase has been used in molecular biology research to answer various research questions ranging from whether a certain gene is on or not to measuring levels of different proteins. Plant biologists have also used it for similar purposes. So, we already had the technique and tools to genetically engineer such plants since 1980s. But the glow in such plants was faint and would require special chemicals to be supplied to the plants for them to luminescence. So, what is different in firefly petunias is the luciferase enzyme that has been taken from a mushroom. It glows constantly with an intensity as bright as the moon light and does not require any extra chemicals. The white flowers in the day time are visible with this soft green glow at night.
While the concern for genetically engineered plants to be spreading their artificially introduced genes in other plants remain. The researchers and the founders have assured that petunia being a non invasive species do not pose any such risk. What makes this an achievement is the potential use of this gene editing technology to produce plants that can glow when stressed or infected and signal to farmers that they need attention. And yes, sensitising people about the benefits of genetic engineering by such beautiful plants is a bonus.
Fighting cancer using its trick
You must have come across the news of the first patient who got cancer free after using CAR-T cell therapy that was approved last year and is developed by ImmunoACT - an Indian company. It is a huge achievement for the country. The treatment cost 42 lakhs which would have been 4 crores had it been taken in the USA or EU.
Let us see what CAR-T cells are. T cells are one of the immune cells of the body that can identify and destroy cancer cells in the body. But they fail at times and this is where gene editing can help. T- cells from the patients can be taken, edited and equipped with CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) that can help the CAR-T cell to recognize and kill the cancer cells in the body. The limitation of this therapy is - besides being super expensive that it can be used only to treat blood cancers. How can we tinker with the CAR-T cells to make them reach cancers in other places like breast or lungs? Scientists that co-founded Moonlight Bio have the answer. They used one of the mutations that helps cancer cells to spread through the body to make CAR-T cells reach tumors present inside organs. The therapy has been tested in mics so far but they are going to bring it out for humans and get the clinical trials started in the next 2-3 years.
The concern of these modified CAR-T cells carrying a mutation that is present in the cancer cells itself which can cause cancer developing from the CAR-T cells has been addressed as the therapy has been found to be not just effective but also safe in mice. We can hope for more efficient and less expensive cancer therapies to be coming out soon.
Solar farms to bring rain storms
We have a technology to artificially produce rain by seeding clouds. Remember when there were plans by the government to use it to mitigate air pollution in Delhi! Cloud seeding is regularly used in desert areas like in the UAE. But there is another way to produce rain.
In 2020, scientists modeled and predicted if there is a solar farm as large as the size of 1/3rd the size of India then it can cause rainfall in that area by hot air rising above leading to cloud formation and rainfall. Producing a solar farm this large is not possible and it would also impact the monsoon in other nearby regions. In a new modeling study, scientists discovered that if the solar panels are dark that completely absorb all the light without reflecting any then a smaller sized solar farm - as large as the Indira Gandhi International airport can bring about rainfall in that area. Now this is something that can be tried out in deserts!