For those of us with seasonal depression or anxiety, houseplants can offer immense comfort. In fact, adding loads of leafy things to your home has been shown to boost mood and relieve anxiety — in short, they help us (metaphorically) breathe a bit easier. But now, a specially designed plant can literally clear the air.
A Paris-based startup called Neoplants aims to harness the natural air-filtering properties of plants and turn them up to 11. By genetically engineering both a pothos (Epipremnum aureum) plant and its associated root microbiome, the team behind Neoplants created an organism they claim is capable of doing the air-purifying work of up to 30 plants. The company’s first high-tech houseplant, called Neo P1, recently hit the market.
Neoplants decided to tinker with flora because they wanted a way to purify air without using electricity — this was mainly for sustainability purposes, ensuring that their product wouldn’t require power from fossil fuels and could recycle pollutants permanently.
Coincidently, public interest in air quality has peaked in recent years. “One of the side effects of the pandemic is that people are much more aware of what’s in the air they breathe,” says Patrick Torbey, a molecular biologist and chief technical officer of Neoplants.
Not to mention, worsening wildfires sparked by climate change-fueled drought and rising temperatures have made indoor air quality a priority for the millions of people affected globally.
Now, by providing green, electricity-free air filtration, Neoplants hopes to rid your home of both pollutants and stress.
Here’s the background — Volatile organic compounds (also known as VOCs) are highly reactive chemicals that are commonly found in things like paints, cleaning supplies, building materials, and pesticides. As a result, they tend to be abundant in indoor air. Unfortunately, they’re not particularly good for human health — VOCs are known to cause headaches, eye and throat irritation, and in some extreme cases, even liver damage or cancer.
The trouble is, most VOCs are very tiny molecules, which makes them extremely difficult to remove from indoor air with a mechanical filter. Even the molecules large enough to be filtered are simply removed and re-released in a different location, rather than neutralized or eliminated completely.
But plants have an advantage here over HEPA filters: Their small size means that VOCs can be absorbed and metabolized by greenery with relative ease. While a commonly cited 1989 NASA report claimed that plants can clear the air in a closed environment, more recent research found that flora only has a modest effect on these types of pollutants.
It turns out that plants just need a little metabolic tweaking to get the job done, according to the Neoplants team.
What’s new — Neoplants’ first product is designed to please. “We started with one of the most popular houseplants in North America,” the pothos vine, which is also known as devil’s ivy, says Lionel Mora, the startup’s co-founder and chief executive officer.
To program the pothos vine to scrub the air, the team had to go where no lab had gone before. Most bioengineers start with a lab-friendly model organism, like Arabidopsis thaliana or Nicotiana benthamiana, whose genomes are mapped and annotated six ways to Sunday.
But the Neoplants team had to map the entire pothos genome themselves, and then determine which genes to target for maximum VOC filtration. “It’s like trying to build a plane while flying,” Torbey says.
The process took four years of near-constant work, but in the end, the engineers managed to create a plant that can metabolize four major indoor air pollutants, including formaldehyde and toluene. The customized flora can even absorb certain VOCs, like the carcinogen benzene, that are present in wildfire smoke.
But the real breakthrough came from modifying the microorganisms living in the plant’s roots. The team inserted genes from extremophile bacteria, which thrive in inhospitable environments by eating toxic chemicals, into these symbiotic microbes. This tweak in turn boosted the plant’s pollutant-metabolizing capacity.
And to ensure that they comply with FDA standards, the engineers were careful to avoid sections of the genome that could enhance the plant’s survival in the wild. “We don’t give a selective advantage to the plant. We don’t make it grow faster, we don’t increase its resistance to pesticides,” Torbey explains. “We’re not touching any of that.”
What’s next — At the moment, the Neoplant is a bit pricey. Neo P1 costs $179, far more expensive than most typical houseplants (though about on par with many mechanical air purifiers).
While the company only has one type of plant available right now, Neoplants is looking to develop a greater variety of VOC-filtering greenery in the future.
Now that the engineers know which genes to target and which tools to use, the process of customizing other houseplant species should be relatively straightforward, according to Torbey. “The cool thing about DNA is that it’s universal,” he says, “It’s easy to transfer technology from one plant to another.”
Down the road, Mora and Torbey hope that Neoplants could even help fight climate change. Although plants naturally pull excess carbon dioxide from the air via photosynthesis, the team believes that it may be possible to send photosynthesis into overdrive with the help of genetic engineering. Engineers could modify plants to capture and store vastly more carbon than they would naturally. This, Mora believes, could become a key strategy in climate mitigation.
“From what we see, carbon capture and storage is the most pressing issue,” Mora says. “And there is no way biology isn’t going to play a part in the solution.”
Editor's note: This article previously stated that NeoPlants' plant can purify the air as effectively as 30 air purifiers. This was an error. The plant can purify the air as effectively as 30 typical houseplants. We regret the error.