Common Houseplant with Special Duties

Everyone loves to display a plant at home or in their office to add a touch of decor. What if that decorative plant could do more for you than just increase the aesthetics of a room? Well, thanks to researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, that is now possible.

These researchers have been able to successfully genetically modify a common houseplant referred to as pothos ivy. Pothos ivy is a strong, healthy houseplant that does well in low-maintenance conditions, so it is a common selection among indoor plant buyers. The task of this genetically modified plant is to remove chloroform and benzene from the air; two molecules that are too small to be trapped by air filters. Exposure to chloroform and benzene can occur when we shower or boil water as well as when we have garages attached to our homes that contain cars or lawn mowers. The primary exposure pathway is breathing in air that contains these compounds; this can happen at work, in the general environment, or even via burning candles. It may not seem to be a huge issue, however, both chloroform and benzene have been linked to cancer.

Chemical structures of chloroform (left) and benzene (right)

So, how exactly does this houseplant remove these harmful chemicals? Well, pothos ivy has been modified to exhibit a protein called cytochrome p450 2e1 (or simply 2e1 for short). When this protein is introduced to the modified plant, it then transforms these potentially carcinogenic compounds into molecules that pothos ivy can use to assist in its own growth and development.

In order to test the effectiveness of the genetically modified houseplant, the researchers made comparisons to the unmodified pothos ivy. After placing both modified and unmodified subjects in separate glass containers, and adding pollutants (chloroform and benzene) over a span of 11 days, the results were astounding. The unmodified pothos ivy did not change the concentration of either pollutant. However, the genetically modified pothos ivy decreased the concentration of chloroform by 82 percent in just three days. By day six, it was almost undetectable. Similarly, by day 8, the concentration of benzene had dropped by 75 percent.

In the human body, the protein 2e1 transforms benzene into a chemical called phenol, and chloroform into carbon dioxide and chloride ions. However, because 2e1 is located in the human liver, and is only activated when we consume alcoholic products, it cannot be used to process pollutants in the air around us. Therefore, the researchers attempted to solve this problem by using pothos ivy as a gateway so that humans can actually benefit from 2e1.


“We want to offer this to the public as a way to reduce a proven, real health threat”

Stuart Strand of the University of Washington in Seattle

The power of a plant is incredible, and it is amazing to see what researchers and scientists can do to further the use of different plants without causing them harm, but instead, creating benefits for the health of the environment and humans alike. Generating this genetically modified plant took more than two years, but the researchers at the university are dedicated to expanding their research to help break down other harmful molecules in the air. Thanks to studies such as this one conducted at the University of Washington, the decorative plants in your home or office may have a greater purpose than just being a centerpiece in the near future.

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