The air in our homes contains plenty of toxic substances — from chemicals that off-gas from building materials to those emanating from our furniture (like glues that hold the couch together or flame retardants on the fabrics). There's also chlorine released from treated water, to cigarette smoke and fragrances from our fabric softeners — all of these are potential sources of indoor air pollutants.
But houseplants can help: Here's our popular list of plants that improve indoor air quality and reduce the air pollution in your home.
Now scientists have gone a step further, inserting a synthetic version of a rabbit gene (known as P450 2e1, or 2E1 for short) into a houseplant. We carry this gene too, as do many mammals. It makes an enzyme that allows the carrier of the gene to break down chemicals. In humans, 2E1 lives in our livers and gets turned on when we drink alcohol, but it's not able to process air pollution.
The idea behind inserting this gene into a plant is to create what researchers have called a "green liver" — a plant that can do some of the work of depolluting our environment the way our livers do for our bodies.
According to a study recently published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology: "[The modified plants] had sufficient detoxifying activity against benzene and chloroform to suggest that biofilters using transgenic plants could remove VOCs from home air at useful rates." When tested in the lab, the genetically altered plant reduced chloroform by 82 percent after three days, and entirely removed it by day six of the trial. Benzene also decreased significantly — by 75 percent after eight days. By comparison, unmodified plants didn't reduce these pollutants by any significant level.
Scientists were specifically interested in removing benzene and chloroform from indoor air since they are known carcinogens.
People haven't really been talking about these hazardous organic compounds in homes, and I think that's because we couldn’t do anything about them," senior study scientist Stuart Strand, a research professor at the University of Washington, said in a release. "Now we've engineered houseplants to remove these pollutants for us."
An important detail: The plants are most effective with regular air movement over their leaves (like a fan); without it, the process is much slower, especially in an environment where toxins are much less concentrated than the lab conditions, like a home. It makes sense because the wind moves air constantly outside, which is also where plants are healthiest.
Still, a gentle fan and some genetically modified plants are a simpler — and much less expensive — solution to improving indoor air quality compared to other options.
"These are all stable compounds, so it's really hard to get rid of them," Strand said. "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."