Bizarre Houseplant-Rabbit Hybrid Creature Has Incredible Effects on the Air

It's simultaneously plant, animal, and HEPA filter.

It would be nice to believe that our homes are safe from the pollutants of the outside world, but a new study in Environmental Science & Technology reveals that the air in our homes contains its own community of airborne hazards. Fortunately, the paper also poses a solution: a lab-developed, toxin-slaying houseplant that gets its purifying powers from the DNA of a rabbit. It’s a vast, albeit bizarre, improvement on a plant that NASA once considered as a space-borne air purifier.

Worried about how airborne toxins might impact tightly quartered space travelers, NASA introduced an air quality solution in 1989: a common houseplant called Pothos Ivy, which has a meager ability to remove some of the toxins from the air. This “green liver concept” — so named because of the liver’s ability to remove toxins from the blood stream — would’ve caught on if Pothos wasn’t so mediocre at removing volatile organic compounds from the air.

Stuart Strand, Ph.D., and environmental engineer at the University of Washington and author of the new Environmental Science & Technology paper, explains that these plants aren’t actually very efficient at removing toxins from the air. You would have to create a jungle of around 20 of them to produce a noticeable effect.

“We don’t think that natural plants have much, if any, ability to remove most of these pollutants,” Strand tells Inverse.

That’s why he modified the plant with a toxin-killing gene from a rabbit called CPY2E1.

genetics plants
Strand's genetically manipulated pothos ivy 

When expressed in animals, the CPY2E1 gene is responsible for manufacturing an enzyme that’s commonly found in the liver, the body’s center for processing toxins, drugs and foreign organic material. When he introduced this gene into the Pothos Ivy, he was hoping it would perform the same function: break down possibly harmful toxins in the air. And so, to test his hypothesis, he incubated his hybrid plants in vials with a few common volatile organic compounds, specifically benzene and chloroform.

VOCs are airborne toxicants that are not only outdoors but indoors, emanating from common products like cigarettes, glue, and household cleaners. In the short term, they can cause dizziness or nausea. In the long term, the most dangerous ones — like benzene and chloroform — are linked to the development of cancer.

Amazingly, after three days, the concentration of chloroform in the vials containing the genetically manipulated plants had dropped by 82 percent. Similarly, he found that that the plants were good at processing benzene too, absorbing 4.7 times more benzene from the air than the wild-type plants.

(At the same time, he also introduced a gene for a green fluorescent protein, which would have made the plants slightly luminescent under ultraviolet light. The fluorescent effect wasn’t as visually striking as the impact of the CPYE21 gene.)

pothos ivy
The genetically modified plants are far more efficient at absorbing airborne toxins 

According to Strand, we don’t have great methods of cleansing our air right now — at least none that are feasible for use in a house or apartment. He envisions his plants, which are notoriously hard to kill in their natural state, as an intervention everyone can use to purify the air they breathe indoors.

“Presently there are no devices for the home for effective removal of VOCs,” Strand says, adding that they’re searching for a commercial partner in the US and Canada.

While they do so, maybe they’ll find a way to make the green fluorescent protein work — making these air-cleaning plants even cooler than they already are.