Making a pink plant glow bright green with genetic modification

Two plants on a dark table, one labelled 'wild type' and lit up pink, one labelled 'eygfpuv' and lit up green, whole image is labelled 'uv light'
UV illuminated poplar plants. The ‘wild type’ on the left is the naturally occurring variant. The plant on the right contains the eYGFPuv reporter and glows green under UV illumination. Credit: Image courtesy of Xiaohan Yang, Oak Ridge National Laboratory

Green fluorescent protein – GFP – is a favourite trick among biologists for looking closely at cells.

Originally found in the jellyfish Aequorea Victoria, the protein glows bright green under precise wavelengths of UV light.

For several decades, scientists have been adding the GFP jellyfish gene to genetically modified animals, plants, and other organisms, to check where they’re expressing genes.

It’s also a useful tag to investigate microscopic processes in cells.

But, while small and non-disruptive, GFP isn’t always the perfect tag: it often needs very sensitive imaging equipment to see the glowing protein, like fluorescence microscopy.

This has spurred researchers to look for and make similar proteins that dodge GFP’s limitations.

One, described in a paper in Horticulture Research, lets us see the protein glowing with a black light and the naked eye.

The protein, charmingly called eYGFPuv, is a modified form of a GFP-like protein, developed specifically for use in plants.

The researchers were able to show that the gene for eYGFPuv could be adopted by four different plant species: the small herbaceous Arabadopsis and tobacco, and the large woody citrus and poplar.

Chlorophyll goes red under UV light, so plants that without this genetic modification showed up pink in a black light.

But the plants that were given the gene for eYGFPuv glowed a bright shade of green instead.

This technique works at both the macroscale, over the whole plant, and the microscale – in seedlings or petri dish cells.

It’s also obvious in dim light – unlike original GFP, which usually needs complete darkness in order to see the glow.

“These features suggest that eYGFPuv has a wide range of applications in plant science research,” write the researchers in their paper.

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