Self-Illuminating Christmas Trees are on the way

A tradition had been going on for thousands of years to have an illuminated Christmas tree in every house (for those who can afford) and public places in Europe and America. Here in the UK I have been struggling eve-ry year to have “fairy lig-hts” on our family Christmas tree, with its tangling mass of wires and tiny bulbs. If one of these bulbs fuses, the whole lighting goes off. Then I have to search for the offending bulb one by one. It is a time consuming and joyless task I have to do during this festive season of Joy. Fortunately, for the past three years I have been using an artificial fir tree with inbuilt ‘fairy’ multicoloured lights. This can be dismantled and stored for the coming year.

Traditionally, presents are kept under the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve, to be distributed to family members, especially the children on Christmas Day.

As the winter solstice drew closer and daylight got shorter, human ancestors all over the world performed some kind of ritual to stop the light from departing altogether, developing into Sun worship. Of course, they always succeeded in persuading the sun to return.

In the West, Yule log burning was the oldest Christmas tradition. It used to be a Pagan festival to celebrate Winter Solstice. It was accompanied by rituals and celebrations. It marked the sun’s rebirth from its southern reaches. It all began in Scandinavia.

In the 4th century CE when Pope Julius I decided to celebrate Christmas around the Winter Solstice, the Yule log tradition continued, but the fire came to represent the light of the Saviour instead of the light of the sun.

Originally, Christmas lights with candles on the trees were used in Germany, in the homes of only the very wealthy, before electricity. In 1882, the idea of electric Christmas lights came up in New York. Within twenty years stores were full of electric lights.

After a tragic fire caused by Christmas electric lights, safety lights for Christmas trees were invented in 1917. Illuminated Christmas tree lights became a Christmas tradition in the UK during Queen Victoria’s reign. In the modern period tiny coloured lights known as fairy lights in the UK, became available.

Science is progressing decade by decade. Now, scientists are able to use a combination of cloning and genetic modifications to produce a fir tree that is fast-growing, resistant to insects and frosts, and whose needles do not drop off. Needles of old cheaper trees drop on the carpet as the trees dry up, which is quite a nuisance.

For some years, genetic engineers have been routinely creating glowing creatures by transferring genes from one place to another. Genes from fireflies and jellyfish have been used to make luminescent mice and monkeys. In America it is possible to buy Glo-fish, fluorescent zebra fish, with yellow, green, bright red and orange colouring.

Fireflies also known as glow worms are not flies but winged beetles. They are known as Tandal in Manipuri. They were quite an excitement during my childhood as scores of them used to fly about in summer at dusk. They glow due to a chemical reaction called bioluminescence. The chemical reaction involves the enzyme luciferase produced by the cells in their tails and the pigment luciferins, in the presence of oxygen. The resulting light is called ‘cold light’ since it generates no infrared or ultraviolet rays. This chemically produced light from their lower abdomen may be blue as in Manipur, or bluish-green. The fireflies only glow at night as it is a mating signal, and also to attract prey.

Over the past few months, a team of scientists at the University of Cambridge has been working on a technique that could make trees grow their own fairy lights. This was discussed at the annual International Genetically Engineered Machines competition (iGEM). The nine strong group has identified genes that can be transported by a harmless bacterium into a plant’s cells, without the need for the expensive Luciferins pigments (from the Latin Lucifer, “light-bringer), which are found in most bioluminescent organisms.

The researchers began with a gene from a marine bacterium called Vibrio fischeri. These bacteria live on the underside of the Hawaiian bobtail squid, Euprymna scolopes, creating a helpful blue glow. Knowing the combination of genes that generates light, they introduced the same machinery into some E-coli bacteria, a bottle of which then cast enough blue light to read by. E-coli bacteria are found as a part of the normal flora of our gut. They can be grown easily and their genetics are comparatively simple and easily manipulated.

The team and other researchers are going to build on this to make other colours (to make fairy lights), converting natural blue light by adding fluorescent proteins. They have already changed the sequence of fireflies’ DNA to produce a range of colours, including red and green.

If these glowing bacteria can be introduced to trees, the team calculates that only 0.02 per cent of the energy absorbed from photosynthesis would need to be diverted into the production of light for firs to glow as brightly as a street light. By adding other protein machinery, it might even be possible to make the hue and brightness vary over the course of the day.

Further, some scientists from the Academia Sinica and the National Cheng Kung University in Taipei, have implanted glowing sea urchin shaped gold nanoparticles, known as light emitting diodes, or bio LEDs, inside the leaves of plants. These biologically based LEDs soon could be used to make trees illuminate streets, making street lights redundant.

I think it is a matter of time before scientist can make human beings glow at night, if the ethics and state laws permit.
The writer is based in the UK