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SCIENCE | Indoor air quality

Rabbit gene blended with ivy makes super-powered air cleaner


Caroline Floyd
Meteorologist

Saturday, December 22, 2018, 3:46 PM - A trace of rabbit DNA has this houseplant's air purifying ability hopping to new levels.

Researchers at the University of Washington have built a better air cleaner, by introducing a gene known as P450 2e1 into devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum). P450 2e1 (or 2E1, for short) is found in all mammals -- including humans -- where it helps to break down chemicals like benzene and chloroform, and that's precisely it came to mind when the team decided to develop a plant better equipped to deal with household pollutants.

"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," said senior author Stuart Strand in a news release from the university. "Now we’ve engineered houseplants to remove these pollutants for us."


Close up of Golden Pothos in a tree vase on wooden table. Image: Getty Images

Volatile chemicals like benzene and chloroform can both be components of poor indoor air quality in homes. Chloroform, for instance, is present in small amounts in chlorinated water, and can be released into the air when you shower or boil water. Benzene is a component of cigarette smoke and gasoline, as well as some household items like glue and paint. In mammals, protein 2E1 breaks these harmful chemicals down into carbon dioxide and chloride ions.

The team introduced a synthetic version of the rabbit form of 2E1 into the ivy, also known as pothos ivy, so that each cell of the plant would contain the pollutant-busting protein, then tested its air purifying ability versus and unmodified plant.

The results were very encouraging, if you're a fan of cleaner air.

Over the course of just three days, the modified ivy reduced the concentration of chloroform in the air by 82 per cent. By day six, it was almost undetectable. By day eight, the benzene concentration had also dropped by roughly 75 per cent. The unmodified plant had no impact on the pollutant levels at all.


The team behind the modified houseplants. From left to right: Ryan Routsong, Long Zhang, Stuart Strand. Mark Stone/University of Washington

It's a mutually-beneficial relationship, too. "2E1 can be beneficial for the plant, too," said Strand. "Plants use carbon dioxide and chloride ions to make their food, and they use phenol to help make components of their cell walls."

For full efficiency, you'd need to make a 'bio-filter' of sorts in your home; something like a little greenhouse, with the plant enclosed and air forced through to flow over it using a fan. "If you had a plant growing in the corner of a room, it will have some effect in that room,” said Strand. “But without air flow, it will take a long time for a molecule on the other end of the house to reach the plant." Talking to The Guardian, Strand estimated you'd need about 5 to 10 kg of the modified plant to clean the air in an average house.

Up next, the team hopes to broaden the ivy's air cleaning capacity even further by adding another protein, this one targeted to removing another common household pollutant -- formaldehyde.

Sources: University of Washington | Science | The Guardian

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