Houseplant with added rabbit DNA could reduce air pollution, study suggests

  • Devil’s ivy with synthetic animal gene inserted helped reduce benzene and chloroform levels
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 9:24am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 December, 2018, 10:32pm

A humble houseplant with a dash of rabbit DNA could help lower our exposure to indoor air pollution, new research suggests.

Scientists have revealed that by inserting a rabbit gene into devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum) the plant is able to clean the surrounding air by breaking down chemicals such as benzene and chloroform, which in certain concentrations can harm health.

The researchers say these chemicals end up in household air as a result of everyday activities, with chloroform released from chlorinated water during showering, and benzene from sources including outside air and smoking.

While previous studies have revealed certain plants can remove some of these problematic chemicals, the rate at which they can do so differs from study to study.

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In an attempt to reduce human exposure to such substances, scientists say they have inserted a synthetic form of the rabbit version of a gene known as P450 2e1 into devil’s ivy.

This gene is found in many mammals, including humans, and produces an enzyme that breaks down a range of chemicals in the body.

While it has been inserted into plants before, including poplar trees, researchers say their study shows the trick also works for humble houseplants.

Writing in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers from the University of Washington say they inserted two other genes at the same time to allow them to check that the genetic modification had worked.

They put the genetically modified plants into vials containing either chloroform or benzene, and measured their levels over time. The results were compared against the same set-up with unmodified plants, and no plants.

The results reveal only a small drop in the concentration of benzene when unmodified plants or no plants were present, with no effect on the concentration of chloroform for either set-up.

However when the genetically modified devil’s ivy was present, the team found benzene concentration fell by about 75 per cent in eight days.

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Further analysis revealed the genetically modified plant took up benzene at 4.7 times the rate of the unmodified plant.

In the case of chloroform, the team report it was “barely detectable” after six days in the presence of the genetically modified plant.

The team say they are now conducting experiments to explore whether the ivy can also reduce levels of other problematic chemicals, or whether other genes could be inserted to help break down a larger range of substances in the air including formaldehyde, which can be released by upholstery and during cooking.

And there is another issue.

“If you had a plant growing in the corner of a room, it will have some effect in that room,” said Professor Stuart Strand, a co-author of the study.

“But without air flow, it will take a long time for a molecule on the other end of the house to reach the plant.”

But Professor Laurence Jones from the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, whose work has recently shown that plants in the UK remove 1.4 million tonnes of air pollution, said more work was needed to see if the approach would prove useful outside the laboratory, noting the time it took for the devil’s ivy to break down the chemicals and the fact there is much more air to clean in a room as well as regular emissions of pollutants.

However, Dr Liz Rylott, a plant biotechnologist from the University of York welcomed the study.

“This is a great breakthrough technology – on paper the health benefits are clear … these plants are lowering your exposure to toxins and that can only be a good thing,” she said.

“It is difficult to say how this will affect your life [on] a long-term basis, but who doesn’t want to lower their exposure to toxins?”

But she added the plant is unlikely to be available in the EU any time soon.

“Legislation in Europe is becoming increasingly restrictive on releasing this technology.”