COMMENT:

Using DNA from a rabbit, scientists have genetically modified a houseplant so that it helps to remove dangerous chemicals from our homes.

Modern industrial living means that a range of hazardous chemicals can build up in our homes. Known as volatile organic carcinogens (VOCs), these chemicals, which include chloroform and benzene, are too small for HEPA air filters.

Chloroform is present in most city tap water as a result of the chlorination process used to kill harmful bacteria and make our water safe to drink. This tiny molecule can be released into the air by the evaporation caused by a hot shower, and with poor bathroom ventilation can travel in the air around the home.

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Benzene is another small molecule found in petroleum and some candles and can be released in small amounts into the home from storing petrol-driven cars and lawn mowers in an attached garage, or from burning some types of candles indoors.

Both chloroform and benzene are classed as hazardous organic pollutants, and have been shown to be harmful to our health in high concentrations. Most homes don't have high levels of these chemicals so there shouldn't be too much cause for concern - but finding ways to remove them may become more important for families who have young children, or who are already exposed to some of these chemicals in their day jobs.

Rather than create a mechanical machine to try and remove these chemicals, scientists at Washington University decided to try to create a living solution, and the results look positive.

Taking a synthetic form of the rabbit gene P450 2e1 and inserting it into a plant called devil's ivy (Epipremnum aureum) the researchers made a plant that functions almost like a liver, removing harmful chemicals from the air. As a common houseplant, it can readily be placed anywhere in the home.

The gene in question is found in many mammals - including humans - and is responsible for producing a liver enzyme that breaks down a range of chemical pollutants in the body.

In our human liver, this enzyme is used every time we drink alcohol, helping our bodies process the potentially toxic drink. It is also used to convert benzene into phenol, and chloroform into carbon dioxide and chloride.

One huge advantage of using plants is that they use carbon dioxide, chloride and phenols to make their food and cell wall structure, so the by-products produced from breaking down these atmospheric pollutants are quickly used by the plant to help it to grow – a win-win.

The research, published in the journal Environmental, Science and Technology, found that after placing the modified plants in a controlled environment filled with high levels on VOCs, after only three days the concentration of chloroform dropped by 82 per cent, and after eight days the amount of benzene fell by 75 per cent.

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Devil's Ivy is a widely grown houseplant that tolerates low levels of light and water. It can survive even with extreme neglect, making it perfect even for those of us who are terrible houseplant owners.

All that would be needed is a fan close by to help increase the airflow so the plant can filter more of the air in a room.

The plant has just been approved for sale in Canada, however, with New Zealand's strict laws on genetically modified plants we probably won't see it here anytime soon.

In the meantime, the best way to reduce indoor air pollution is to keep your home well ventilated, either by opening windows in the summer or running a heat pump in the winter.