Paris is called the City of Light, but that distinction could soon have a whole new level of meaning if French start-up Glowee has anything to say about it. The company has developed a form of bioluminescent lighting generated by living organisms that glow, with the hope that it might replace electric lighting in some Parisian shop fronts and street signs, reports New Scientist.

“Our goal is to change the way we produce and use light,” said Glowee founder Sandra Rey. “We want to offer a global solution that will reduce the 19 percent of electricity used to produce light.”

The living lanterns produce an eerie but cool neon-like illumination. An urban landscape lit by this technology would have an exotic, futuristic quality that might appeal to ravers or glow stick enthusiasts ... or, for that matter, biology geeks.

The lights are made by filling small transparent cases with a gel containing bioluminescent bacteria. Nutrients in the gel keep the bacteria alive for several days before they die and the light goes out. That isn't a very long time, but Glowee researchers are working to lengthen the lifespan of the lights by months.

Currently, the company is utilizing the bacterium Aliivibrio fischeri, which glows with a blue-green light and is found in radiant marine animals such as the Hawaiian bobtail squid. Other organisms might offer different color options, though those haven't been explored yet.

Paris is the ideal landscape to launch the product because in France, retailers are not allowed to light their shop windows between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. to limit light pollution and energy consumption. That law only applies to electric lights, however, so bioluminescent lights offer a loophole. The living lights can also work as decorative lighting in places with no power cables, since they don't need to be plugged in.

Of course, working with living organisms means the lighting is considerably more fragile than conventional lighting. For instance, the organisms will die if surrounding temperatures fluctuate too wildly. Some of these problems are solvable, however. Glowee is already working to genetically engineer the bacteria to survive temperature fluctuations of up to 20 degrees Celsius. Genetically altered bacteria can also be made to shine brighter and live longer. In fact, the team at Glowee has identified a molecular switch that activates the bioluminescent bacteria only at night.

It's unlikely that electric lighting will be completely replaced by glow-in-the-dark organisms anytime soon, but it certainly offers some different possibilities in the meantime. The idea of whole urban neighborhoods switching to a colorful, living radiance during late-night hours certainly carries a comic book appeal that has some real fad potential. Night clubs and back alley bars could certainly make use of the trend, if it ever catches on.

The future may be bright indeed, with a blue-green glow.

Bryan Nelson ( @@brynelson ) writes about everything from environmental problems here on Earth to big questions in space.

Could lights illuminated by bioluminescent bacteria replace electric lighting?
Imagine your city illuminated at night by glow stick-like lighting generated entirely from living organisms.