Modifiedhouse plant removes air pollution

GLOBAL HOUSE PLANTS RI Farm
RESEARCH: The modified houseplant, pothos ivy, removes chloroform and benzene from the air around it. (Photo: Mark Stone)

RESEARCHERS at the University of Washington have genetically modified a common houseplant – pothos ivy – so that it removes chloroform and benzene from the air.

Small molecules such as chloroform, found in chlorinated water, or benzene, a component of gasoline, build up in homes when people shower or boil water, or when they store cars or lawnmowers in attached garages.

Both have been linked to cancer.

The researchers put both modified and unmodified plants in glass tubes and added benzene or chloroform gas into each tube. They tracked how the concentration of each pollutant changed.

For the unmodified plants, the concentration of either gas didn’t change.

But for the modified plants, the concentration of chloroform dropped by 82 per cent after three days, and was almost undetectable by day six.

The concentration of benzene also decreased in the modified plant vials, but more slowly: By day eight, the benzene concentration was down 75 per cent.

The team expects that home levels would drop similarly, if not faster, over the same time frame.

Stuart Strand, a research professor in the civil and environmental engineering department, says plants in the home would also need to be inside an enclosure with something to move air past their leaves, such as a fan: “Without air flow, it will take a long time for a molecule on the other end of the house to reach the plant.”

Strand says the modified houseplants express a protein, cytochrome P450 2E1 (2E1), that transforms the compounds into molecules the plants can use to support their own growth.

But 2E1 is located in the human liver and is turned on when people drink alcohol, so it’s not available to help process pollutants in the air.

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