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Are Genetically Engineered Plants the Next Big Thing in Air Filtration?

By May 28, 2019 May 4th, 2020 No Comments
11–13 minutes to read

Learn how scientists have created a plant capable of improving outdoor and indoor air quality, removing airborne pollutants like a high efficiency air filter.

Camfil Air Filtration – In a recent study published in the journal Environmental, Science and Technology, researchers from the University of Washington have revealed the findings of a study that sought to insert a synthetic animal gene into a common houseplant, effectively turning it into a natural high efficiency air filter capable of reducing benzene and chloroform levels in the air.

The plant in question is devil’s ivy (Epipremnum aureum), a temperate houseplant known for being easy to care for and propagate. The scientists inserted a bit of synthetic rabbit DNA, which they believe may hold the potential for a natural solution to indoor air pollution. The addition of a synthetic gene allows the plant to clean the surrounding air by naturally breaking down chemical compounds such as chloroform and benzene, which in high concentrations can be dangerous to human health.

“In many buildings, indoor air pollution is the result of poor ventilation paired with the consistent release of airborne pollutants from indoor sources,” explains Camfil USA’s Charlie Seyffer, Manager of Marketing & Technical Materials for commercial air filters and 37-year ASHRAE member and active committee participant. “This is why an HVAC system with proper air filtration is so important in homes and buildings.”

The researchers point out that these volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are far more common than many people think. They are generated by everyday household activities, such as showering with chlorinated water (chloroform), smoking, cooking, and heating (benzene).

While concentrations of these airborne pollutants in most households are not extreme, they are still high enough to be concerning. According to Stuart Strand, a professor at the University of Washington and one of the study’s co-authors, research teams in developed countries have found that levels of VOCs in some homes can reach industrial limits, creating a toxic environment for at-risk populations, such as children, the elderly, and individuals with existing health conditions.

Can Plants Improve Indoor Air Quality?

While previous studies on how certain plants improve indoor air quality have shown great promise, the rate at which plants were observed to capture and remove problematic chemical pollutants from indoor environments varied widely from study to study.

As such, the researchers chose to focus on a specific aspect of plants and air pollution, using a synthetic form of a rabbit’s version of the gene known as P450 2e1, into a hardy and common houseplant like devil’s ivy.

Both the choice of gene and plant are important for the following reasons:

  • Cytochrome P450 2e1 is found in a wide variety of mammals, including humans
  • The gene generates an enzyme that naturally breaks down toxic chemicals in the body
  • As mentioned earlier, devil’s ivy is common, easy to care for, and easy to propagate—making them a practical houseplant in indoor environments

It’s worth noting that synthetic P450 2e1 has already been inserted into plants like poplar trees, but the researchers wanted to find out if its air purification effects could be duplicated in houseplants.

Do the Study’s Results Rival Performance of Commercial Air Filtration Units?

While the researchers’ findings don’t necessarily show that the genetically modified plants rival the ability of regular commercial air filtration units to remove toxic pollutants from indoor spaces, they still provide important insight on how different things in our environment react to air pollution.

To expand the scope of their study, the researchers also inserted two other genes along with P450 2e1—this allowed them to check if genetic modification could indeed work in the devil’s ivy. They then placed the genetically modified plants in separate vials with benzene and chloroform, monitoring the levels of these chemicals over time. The results were also compared with vials containing unmodified plants and vials with no plants at all.

In the vials with unmodified plants and no plants, the researchers observed a tiny drop in the concentration of benzene, while the concentration of chloroform remained unchanged. But in the vials with genetically modified devil’s ivy, the team found that the concentration of benzene dropped by approximately 75 percent across an eight-day period. Further analysis also revealed that the genetically modified devil’s ivy managed to absorb benzene at a rate that was 4.7 percent faster than the unmodified plants.

As for chloroform, the research team reported that it had all but disappeared in the vials with the genetically modified plant.

Potential for Bio-Home Air Purifiers in the Future

The next step for the researchers is to conduct more experiments to determine whether genetically modified devil’s ivy also has the ability to reduce concentrations of other problematic VOCs, or whether other synthetic genes could be used to harness their natural ability to break down a wider range of chemicals such as formaldehyde, which is off-gassed by cooking and upholstery. The team is also looking into the possibility of creating a “bio-filter,” where plants are placed in an enclosed system in front of heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) systems, behaving much like home air purifiers.

According to Strand, while having one of these genetically modified plants in a corner of the room may not have a substantial effect on household air pollution, creating a miniature greenhouse of sorts with around 5 to 10 kilograms of plants and adding a particulate filter, could very well improve indoor air quality (IAQ). Strand adds that there currently aren’t many solutions on the market designed to capture and remove volatile organic compounds, so what they are proposing could be a technology that will fill this gap.

One of Many Studies on Plants Behaving Like High Efficiency Filtration Units

The findings of this study support the growing body of research on how plants and trees can improve air quality. According to an earlier study by The Nature Conservancy, a U.S.-based environmental organization, tree planting offers a relatively affordable way to improve ambient air quality in urban environments, noting that trees behave much like high efficiency filtration units, reducing particulate matter (PM) levels in the air by around 7 to 24 percent.

Particulate matter is a term that refers to microscopic particles small and light enough to stay suspended in the air for long periods of time,” explains Seyffer at Camfil USA. “Fine particulate matter, or PM2.5—particles no larger than 2.5 microns in diameter—are especially dangerous because they are small enough to enter and become trapped in the lungs of people.”

Furthermore, The Nature Conservancy study adds that around 6.2 million premature deaths around the world could be attributed to high levels of PM in the atmosphere by 2050. The study’s authors point out that trees may hold the potential to solving the problem because of their low cost and low impact on resources.

For Now, Home Air Purification Systems Still the Best Solution

In any case, what’s clear is that home air purification systems are still the most effective way to ensure that indoor environments have the best air quality possible. An air purifier that uses a combination of an industrial HEPA filter and an activated carbon filter, for example, will provide the dual-action protection, capturing both sub-micron particulate matter and gaseous pollutants like VOCs.

To learn more about how high efficiency air filters can improve indoor air quality in buildings and homes, get in touch with the team at Camfil USA. For those shopping for commercial air filtration technology, visit our product catalog to explore our solutions yourself.

Lynne Laake

Camfil USA Air Filters

T: 888.599.6620

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