A small French town is thrust into the light by bioluminescent organisms

These lamps are alive.
Derya Ozdemir

Glowee, a French startup, has transformed the small town of Rambouillet in France into the subject of an odd yet breathtakingly gorgeous lighting experiment.

As you read this, a number of bioluminescent cylindrical tubes emitting an azure, ethereal glow are already illuminating the waiting room of the town's COVID-19 vaccination center, the BBC reports. These otherworldly lights are powered by living organisms through a process known as bioluminescence, which you've probably witnessed if you've ever seen a firefly.

And the startup's soft, turquoise hue is spreading, as it's spearheading the effort in other towns across France as well, using a range of biological processes to harness nature's light sources, with an emphasis on sustainability and biodiversity protection.

What is bioluminescence?

The production and emission of light by chemical reactions inside a living creature is known as bioluminescence, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

From fungi to fireflies and fish, this phenomenon can be observed across numerous places in nature. For example, fireflies light up to entice possible mates, whilst some algae glow when the surrounding water is disturbed. Some species, such as deepsea anglerfish, use this phenomenon to attract prey.

According to BBC, 76 percent of deep-sea creatures have the ability to glow through bioluminescence.

How does the startup utilize bioluminescence?

Glowee, on the other hand, employs a marine bacterium called Aliivibrio fischeri collected off the coast of France to light up rooms and, potentially, whole cities in the future.

"Our goal is to change the way in which cities use light," Sandra Rey, founder of Glowee, told BBC. "We want to create an ambiance that better respects citizens, the environment and biodiversity – and to impose this new philosophy of light as a real alternative."

A small French town is thrust into the light by bioluminescent organisms
Source: Glowee

The startup keeps the bacteria inside saltwater-filled tubes. This allows bacteria to circulate in what is essentially a luminous aquarium, where a combination of basic nutrients is given readily and the air is pumped through the water to provide oxygen.

A small French town is thrust into the light by bioluminescent organisms
Source: Glowee

The light is produced by internal biochemical processes that are part of the organism's normal metabolism, which is why running it requires essentially no energy other than that required to manufacture the food the bacteria ingest. When they want to switch off the lights, they shut off the air supply, which puts the bacteria in an anaerobic state, where they no longer create bioluminescence.

Harnessing bioluminescence to light our cities?

The startup believes that bioluminescence produced by bacteria could be an energy-efficient, sustainable solution to easing our dependency on electricity for lighting, which is largely produced by burning fossil fuels.

A small French town is thrust into the light by bioluminescent organisms
Source: Glowee

The entire process is dependent on living organisms, which is why it faces several hurdles that need to be overcome before it can be employed on a large scale. One shortcoming is that the process creates a fraction of the light. The startup is improving bacteria without using genetic modifications, making them more efficient in terms of light production. They could also be sensitive to temperatures, so Glowee is working on these issues to light the way for more towns and cities to follow suit.

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