Gardening Houseplants Purifying the air with plants

GMO Houseplant Cleans Air Better

Plain old pothos: the enhanced version is not commercially available. Source: gardengoodsdirect.com

Scientists from the University of Washington report that they have modified the genes of a common houseplant, pothos or devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum), so that it will better clean the air of industrial toxins.

It’s well known that indoor air in most homes and offices is highly polluted, notably with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as formaldehyde, benzene and chloroform that are given off by many sources: cooking, furniture, paint, paper, cleaning products, carpets, smoking, candles, air fresheners, beauty products … and the list goes on and on. And it is also well known that plants are excellent air purifiers, able to remove even very fine particles the best man-made HEPA filters are unable to reach. It’s just that they’re not very efficient at it. Researchers estimate, for example, it would take more than 20 plants to remove all the formaldehyde that has built up in a typical room.

That’s why Stuart Strand and his team members, Ryan Routsong and Long Zhang, from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineeringat the University of Washington wondered if they could introduce a mammalian gene, cytochrome P450 2E1 (2E1 for short), into a plant so it could do the job. 2E1 is known for its ability to break down most VOCs into simpler, safe compounds, but is only present in the liver whereas it would need to present in the lungs to clean the air we breathe. The team managed to insert a synthetic version of the rabbit form of 2E1 gene into a pothos plant, a process that took more than two years.

20190103B Nyanatusita, Wikimedia Commons
In the wild, pothos is a vigorous climber that spreads by creeping stems. It is incapable of blooming. Source: Nyanatusita, Wikimedia Commons

The pothos was chosen because of its nearly indestructible nature. It can survive and even thrive indoors with minimal care as well as under low light and humidity, a combination that would kill most other plants. Also, there is no danger of this plant ever producing seeds that could escape into the wild. The species suffers from a genetic flaw that prevents it from ever blooming, even in the wild.

Only two COVs have been tested so far: chloroform and benzene. The plant was able to reduce the concentration of chloroform by 82 percent after three days and to almost undetectable levels by the sixth day. Benzene was absorbed more slowly: it took 8 days to reduce its concentration by 75 percent.

In a home environment, the air would need to move through the plant’s foliage for it to clean it efficiently, perhaps with a fan. Interestingly, when COVs are broken down, they do no harm to the plant which, in fact, uses the particles as building blocks for its further growth.

References:

Greatly Enhanced Removal of Volatile Organic Carcinogens by a Genetically Modified Houseplant, Pothos Ivy (Epipremnum aureum) Expressing the Mammalian Cytochrome P450 2e1 Gene

Gibberellin deficiency is responsible for shy-flowering nature of Epipremnum aureum

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, laidbackgardener.blog will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

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