By Irina Slav
Jellyfish aren’t just a menace—they may very well have the power to save the planet.
The marine creatures have long been studied for their potential to help combat major diseases from cancer to Alzheimer’s, but now they can help us with something that affects everyone on the planet: renewable energy.
That eerie jellyfish glow that creeps out wayward swimmers could power your next home. That glow is caused by the green fluorescent protein (GFP), which, as the name suggests, fluoresces under UV light as it absorbs photons and emits electrons.
It is this property that made the GFP so popular with medical researchers, who use it to mark other proteins, some of them associated with different diseases. Others help scientists map different parts of an organism.
Back in 2010, Swedish scientists experimented with GFP as a material for a new type of solar cells that are both cheaper and more efficient than the dominant silicon-based PV technology.
Gratzel solar cells—cells that use light-sensitive dyes mimicking photosynthesis to produce electricity—are not new. But the development along those lines have been relatively disappointing.
What the Swedish researchers did was a variation on this type of cells with GFP instead of a dye. The electricity this cell produced was minuscule; but at the time, scientists said it could be enough to power nano-devices used for diagnosing various diseases.
Since then, there has been little in the way of news on the topic, but another breakthrough in the jellyfish arena has stormed onto the scene, this time in LED lighting.
Spanish researcher Ruben Costa was in 2017 included in the MIT Technological Review’s list of Innovators under 35 for his pioneering work in stabilizing fluorescent proteins outside what’s called an aqueous medium, that is, a water environment.
“We stabilized the first proteins two and a half years ago, and we are still waiting for them to degrade; they haven’t stopped giving off light,” Costa told the MIT Technological Review in 2017. The news is potentially significant because these proteins can be used to make bioLEDs: an environmentally friendly, renewable light source.
“I never thought you could make technology with bio-compounds,” Costa told the World Economic Forum last year. “I come from a world where basically everyone is telling me bio is not stable enough. But they are very stable.”
It is no wonder that the researcher who discovered the Green Fluorescent Protein received the Nobel Prize from chemistry in 2008. It is also no wonder that the scientist who invented the efficient blue LED also won the Nobel Prize—in physics—in 2014. It was just a matter of time between the GFP and LED technology came together.
Today, LED lighting use is on the rise, and this increase is set to continue. The current technology is cheap and the lighting is efficient and more environmentally friendly than many alternatives. But there is one glaring problem. Today’s LED lights feature a coat of chemical elements that include a rare earth material known as yttrium. This substance is used to turn the naturally blue light into the kind of white light we use in our homes. And this substance is finite and quickly approaching peak demand.
A bio alternative sounds like the perfect solution.
“The assets of proteins are that you can produce them everywhere in the world, via the bacteria E. coli, which is a patent-free technology – and it’s very cheap to do,” Costa says.
So, does this mean we would need to make jellyfish smoothies, like the Swedish scientists in 2010, to isolate and use the GFP? Not at all because other researchers have managed to isolate the protein, synthesize it in the lab and—this is the best part—they can now rearrange the DNA of other organisms to make them produce GFP.
The world’s jellyfish population can rest easy.
Of course, real change takes time, and it may be a while before Costa and his fellow researcher have more news. As of 2018, they were working on extending the stability of their bioLED to 5,000-10,000 hours. In the meantime, others are looking for alternatives to electricity for lighting.
One company says it can make light without electricity from the grid. Startup Glowee says on its website, “Having identified the genetic coding that creates bioluminescence, Glowee inserts this code into common, non-toxic, and non-pathogenic bacteria to produce clean, safe, synthetic bioluminescence. Once engineered and grown, the bacteria are encapsulated into a transparent shell, alongside a medium composed of the nutrients they need to live and make light.”
This sounds like something straight out of the future, but the truth is, science has indeed made great leaps in the genetic engineering field and bioluminescent lighting is one of the benefits we are already reaping.
Truth be told, Glowee makes light installations for hotels and other public places. The company’s owner, Sandra Rey, admits her bioluminescent lights would never replace regular household lighting. Yet it is certainly a move in the right direction: taking at least a small portion of energy demand off the grid.
Perhaps at some point, bioluminescent tech will evolve to the point where it would replace regular household lighting, and we will never again have to worry about replacing light bulbs because there won’t be bulbs; just LED lights with jellyfish protein.