Common Houseplant Helps Scientists Improve Solar Energy Technology

Researchers have just discovered that a common houseplant, the begonia, has a unique method of gathering light. The findings may help scientists develop better solar energy technology. The details are in a paper that was published in the journal Nature Plants.

The ability to capture more light would significantly improve current forms of solar energy technology. Scientists study living plants to better understand the photosynthesis process and efficient methods of harvesting light. Some plants have an iridescent sheen and researchers have wondered whether this aided photosynthesis or had a different function.

Begonias are popular flowering plants that grow well indoors. The plants can tolerate low light conditions because their wild cousins live at the bottom of forests, where little light can penetrate through the canopy. Many begonia species have a blue sheen on their leaves and the purpose of this iridescence was unknown.

Researchers from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol studied the blue iridescence found on begonia leaves. The team quickly noticed that the leaves only developed this sheen when grown in low light conditions. After further analysis under the microscope, the researchers found that tiny blue chloroplasts, called iridoplasts, were responsible for the iridescence. These modified chloroplasts took advantage of a form of nanotechnology called photonics. The iridoplasts had inner layers of only 100 nanometers in length, which helped the leaves reflect blue light. Interestingly, the iridoplasts were very efficient at capturing green light. This makes sense because wild begonias would have to rely on green wavelengths of light. Blue light can’t pass through all of the trees in the upper canopy. The team found that the begonia leaves were overall better at capturing light when compared to regular chloroplasts.

The team believes that their findings can be used to improve solar energy nanotechnology. By mimicking strategies that already work in nature, such as the begonia’s iridescence, scientists can develop new ways of harvesting sunlight.


Jacobs et al. Photonic multilayer structure of Begonia chloroplasts enhances photosynthetic efficiency. Nature Plants (2016).

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