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Plant ‘canaries’

Houseplants could one day monitor home health, alerting us to VOCs and harmful environmental agents
Plant ‘canaries’ are on the horizon

In a perspective published in Science, Neal Stewart and his University of Tennessee coauthors explore the future of houseplants as aesthetically pleasing and functional sirens of home health.

The idea is to genetically engineer house plants to serve as subtle alarms that something is amiss in our home and office environments.

Stewart, who is a professor of plant sciences in the UT Herbert College of Agriculture – and also holds the endowed Racheff Chair of Excellence in Plant Molecular Genetics – came up with the idea during conversations with his wife, Susan, and Rana Abudayyeh, an assistant professor in the UT College of Architecture and Design’s School of Interior Architecture. Both Susan Stewart and Abudayyeh are coauthors of the article.

Susan Stewart recently graduated from the school as a non-traditional re-entry student, and Abudayyeh was among her professors.

Plants as biosensors

This is not the first time that plants have been proposed as biosensors. The authors point out that to date several environmentally relevant phytosensors have been designed by using biotechnology.

In fact, what was once known as genetic engineering has grown into a whole field of study called synthetic biology, which is the design and construction of new biological entities or systems.

Synthetic biology allows farmers to grow plants designed to resist drought or certain pests, and Neal Stewart has authored or coauthored several studies involving the engineering of plants to react to certain conditions, like the presence of too much or too little nitrogen.

Such plants ‘glow’ when viewed with specifically designed filters. Once this technology is commercialised, it may allow farmers of the future to adjust their management plans accordingly.

More than a pretty plant

What is new, and is discussed by the authors in the Science article, is the concept of applying synthetic biology to houseplants beyond aesthetic reasons, like larger blooms or variegated foliage.

‘Houseplants are ubiquitous in our home environments’, says Neal Stewart. ‘Through the tools of synthetic biology it’s possible for us to engineer houseplants that can serve as architectural design elements that are both pleasing to our senses and that function as early sensors of environmental agents that could harm our health, like mould, radon gas or high concentrations of volatile organic compounds.’

Stewart explains that plant biosensors could be designed to react to harmful agents in any number of ways, such as gradually changing the colour of their foliage or through the use of fluorescence.

‘They can do a lot more than just sit there and look pretty’, he says. ‘They could alert us to the presence of hazards in our environment.’

Biophilic principles

The authors postulate that dense populations of biosensors would be needed, so architectural design elements like ‘plant walls’ might best serve as environmental monitors while also serving our innate need to connect with Nature even while indoors.

‘Biophilic design builds on our innate affiliation with Nature, so integrating biophilic elements within the interior volume carries rich implications spatially and experientially’, says Abudayyeh. ‘Building responsive capabilities into interior plants is revolutionary. It allows biophilic elements within space to assume a more integral role in the space, actively contributing to the wellbeing of the occupant holistically.’

Health and wellbeing

While the Science article presents the concept, Neal Stewart and Abudayyeh have plans to bring their ideas from the lab to future blueprints and ultimately to our homes, schools, hospitals and offices. Neal Stewart and Abudayyeh have already collaborated on a grant proposal, and they plan to pursue additional projects in the future.

‘Our work should result in an interior environment that is more responsive to overall health and wellbeing of its occupants while continuing to provide the benefits plants bring to people every day’, says Abudayyeh. ‘I’m thrilled that my students will be part of this breakthrough research as they integrate this kind of innovation into designing interior spaces.’

Click here for more about biophilic design and its benefits.

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