Innovation Watch: Super advanced, genetically engineered… houseplants?

Researchers at the University of Washington have genetically modified a houseplant to clean the air around it. We look at how the humble houseplant might pave the way to widespread acceptance of genetic modification.

When it comes to genetic engineering, we tend to dream big. We’re talking re-growing arms, eradicating illness, solving world hunger. So, when we read about common houseplants being engineered to remove benzene and chloroform from the air around it, we couldn’t help wanting something a bit more grand.

But, that’s the point, isn’t it? It’s not designed to be exciting. It’s designed to be accepted.

We’re happy to use air filters in our homes to keep our homes free of dust and allergens but some hazardous compounds are too small to be trapped in these filters. Small molecules like chloroform or benzene build up in our homes over time. Exposure to both chemicals have been linked to cancer.

That’s where a humble (and genetically engineered) pothos ivy comes in. Researchers at the University of Washington have tweaked its genetics to express a protein called 2E1, which transforms these potentially dangerous molecules into something the plants use for food. It’s genius in its simplicity.

Rightly or wrongly, there’s often a fear around genetic modification, as anyone involved in GMO foods will tell you. A houseplant that cleans air has a clear benefit and feels innocuous enough to be embraced by the public without the same fears being triggered. If these plants did achieve widespread success then there’s every chance it could be the moment that changes the reputation of genetic modification.

On a professional level, we’d really like to have the ability to genetically modify things on demand! Our tech clients are often looking for on-brand ways to add ‘life’ to experiential activations. It would be good fun to create plants that, for example, glow under direct light.

It’ll be interesting to track the development of these plants and see if they go from lab test to popular product. If genetic modification becomes a normal part of everyday life, we’re sure it’s going to be start with something as simple as a house plant.