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Using genetically modified houseplants to fight air pollution

Having a houseplant is sure to bring some colour into what can otherwise be a boring student room. But now, scientists have discovered that plants can also be hugely beneficial to our health. Recent studies have shown that houseplants could increase focus, reduce stress, and improve a person’s mood. Scientists plan to take this to another level, and aim to use plants to remove pollutants from our air and potentially help protect against cancer.

A genetically modified version of Devil’s Ivy has been shown to reduce concentrations of chloroform and benzene in the air, two toxins linked to causing cancer, that are created all round the home. The protein produced by Devil’s Ivy, called P450 2E1, is a synthetic form of one found in rabbits and is very similar to proteins found in many mammals, including in the livers of humans. Unfortunately for us, the protein being located in our livers means we can’t use it to remove these toxins from the air we breathe, but that’s where the plants come in.

Recent studies have shown that houseplants could increase focus, reduce stress, and improve a person’s mood.

The team of scientists behind this discovery believe that the plant could act as part of a biofilter; by forcing the air through the filter using fans, the plants could clean the air as it enters the home. One of the co-authors of the paper, Professor Stuart Strand, described it as “an example of the ‘green liver’ concept.”

This process is by no means straightforward: “These are all stable compounds, so it’s really hard to get rid of them,” explains Strand, “Without proteins to break down these molecules, we’d have to use high-energy processes to do it. It’s so much simpler and more sustainable to put these proteins all together in a houseplant.”

The team of scientists behind this discovery believe that the plant could act as part of a biofilter…

And, with plants being the wonderful things they are, not only does this process help us, its also a benefit to them. The protein breaks benzene down into a chemical called phenol which plants use to build their cells, and chloroform is broken down to carbon dioxide and chloride ions which the plants then use to make their food.

During their experiment, the team placed the plant in vials containing either chloroform or benzene and compared their effect to that of an ordinary plant, and no plant at all, in identical vials. They found that their genetically modified plant reduced the concentration of benzene by about 75% in eight days and that chloroform was “barely detectable” after six.

They found that their genetically modified plant reduced the concentration of benzene by about 75% in eight days and that chloroform was “barely detectable” after six

Meanwhile, the vials with either a normal plant or no plant showed only a small drop in the levels of benzene, and no change at all for chloroform. In fact, when the team studied the effects further, they found that the modified plant removed benzene at 4.7 times the rate of an ordinary plant.

It has even been suggested in the past that even ordinary plants can be used in schools in built-up areas to help combat the levels of air pollution children are exposed to. A recent study by Professor Laurence Jones found that plants in the UK already remove around 1.4 million tonnes of air pollution, equivalent to £1 billion in healthcare costs. And now this new development shows that this could be taken a lot further, something the team at Washington intend to do.

It has even been suggested in the past that even ordinary plants can be used in schools in built-up areas to help combat the levels of air pollution children are exposed to

The team plan to further investigate the effects that these plants could have, seeing if they could have a similar effect on other harmful toxins and potentially exploring other genetic modifications to improve the impact this could have. Specifically, they are focusing next on formaldehyde, which can be given off by wooden objects such as laminate floors and furniture.

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