Rabbit gene turns houseplant into air detoxifier

The modified golden pothos plant has been approved for sale in Canada.
CNN  — 

Humble houseplants have long been known to bring benefits that go way beyond brightening a room, and now researchers have given their powers an extra boost, turning a popular species of climber into an air purifier.

A team of scientists at the University of Washington in the United States made the golden pothos (Epipremnum aureum) remove toxic gases from the air by inserting a rabbit gene called CYP2E1 into its DNA.

The air breathed in homes usually contains more harmful compounds than office or school air, according to the study.

“This is the first houseplant that has been transformed to break down toxic compounds in the home,” study author Stuart Strand told CNN via telephone.

This gene, which is present in all mammals, makes an enzyme called cytochrome P450 2E1 that breaks down a number of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), many of which are toxic. The enzyme also metabolizes alcohol in the human liver.

But the team focused in on its ability to break down the harmful compounds benzene and chloroform, which have been linked with cancer, according to the American Cancer Society and the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Research shows that the genetically modifed plants can break down benzene and chloroform.

These compounds are produced by many sources in the home, such as showering, cooking, smoking and even furniture.

To test the plants’ powers of purification, the team placed unaltered as well as altered plants in glass tubes containing either chloroform or benzene gas and left them for 11 days before measuring the concentration of gas in each of the tubes.

Unaltered pothos plants did break down chloroform and benzene to clean the air, but the researchers found that the modified plant did so far more efficiently – making it more useful as a potential filter in the home.

The plants destroy these compounds rather than store them, explained Strand, turning chloroform into chloride ions and carbon dioxide, which it then uses during photosynthesis. They also convert benzene into phenol, which is used to build plant cell walls.

The researchers are now working on adding another protein to the plants that would remove formaldehyde from the air, according to the study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

Formaldehyde – found in cigarette smoke – is another harmful compound and known human carcinogen, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).