Indoor plants are now being genetically modified to reduce indoor air pollution.
In 2018, researchers from the University of Washington modified a Pothos plant to remove chloroform and benzene from the air around it. At the time, the technology was considered revolutionary.
While ordinary plants have little effect on pollution, two companies have now developed genetically modified pothos plants that may have a bigger impact. There are now two genetically modified versions of the familiar pothos (Epipremnum aureum, Devil’s Ivy) designed to enhance its ability to reduce indoor air pollution.
In Canada, Origen Air is selling air purification systems containing a GM pothos.
The Air Pinnacle delivers a multi-barrier solution for indoor air purification. The system was designed using plant-based IP, acquired from the University of Washington, and ‘biomimicry’ to deliver a natural ecosystem capable of improving indoor air quality on a commercial scale, using plants. French-based Neoplants, plans to start selling another GM pothos to US consumers towards the end of 2023. It is said to do the work of 30 common houseplants.
The company genetically engineered both a pothos plant and its associated root microbiome to produce Neo P1, a powerful air purifier. It could revolutionise the air purification industry.
Plants can trap, absorb and metabolise even the smallest of particles. The P1 has the potential to remove volatile organic compounds (VOC) which conventional air purifiers cannot process because the compounds are so small that they cannot be captured by traditional methods.
The company started with a popular house plant instead of a conventional research-friendly species. This was problematic because the pothos’ genome had not been mapped (so) this was the first task. Four years’ work produced a plant that can metabolise four major indoor air pollutants, including formaldehyde and toluene. It can even absorb certain VOCs including benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, and others. These are highly reactive chemicals commonly found in paints, cleaning supplies, building materials, and pesticides. The Neoplants have been modified at the DNA level to produce new enzymes that can metabolise air pollutants, turning VOCs into the water, sugars, amino acids and oxygen, which makes them capable of purifying air.
Even if an air purifier manages to filter VOCs, they will simply be released by the purifier in a different location, rather than eliminating and neutralising them completely.
They also experimented with the microorganisms living in the plant’s roots, inserting genes from extremophile bacteria, which thrive in inhospitable environments by consuming toxic chemicals. This alteration significantly increased the resulting plant’s pollutant-metabolising capacity.
While the company only has one type of plant- Neo P1 available right now, Neoplants is looking to develop a greater variety of VOC-filtering plants in the future.
Now that the engineers know which genes to target and which tools to use, the process of customising other houseplant species should be relatively straightforward, “DNA is universal, it’s easy to transfer technology from one plant to another.”
It’s possible the idea could even help fight climate change. Although plants naturally pull excess carbon dioxide from the air via photosynthesis, it may be possible to send photosynthesis into overdrive with the help of genetic engineering. Engineers could modify plants to capture and store vastly more carbon than they would naturally. This could contribute to climate mitigation.
“Carbon capture and storage is the most pressing issue, and there is no way biology isn’t going to play a part in the solution.”