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Scientists genetically engineer indoor plants to remove carcinogens from the air



Scientists at the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington have genetically modified a shared indoor plant to degrade toxic molecules found in chlorinated water and gasoline. The plant, "Pothos ivy", has been engineered to express a protein called 2E1, which allows the breakdown of benzene and chloroform into components that the plant can use for its own needs. The targeted chemicals are found in small amounts in typical households that build up over time, but the size of their molecules is too small to be captured by HEPA filters. Since exposure to these chemicals has been linked to cancer, this scientific achievement is good news for human health.

In their study published on December 1

9, 2018, in the journal Environmental Science & Technology researchers Long Zhang, Ryan Routsong, and Stuart E. Strand described the process by which they modified the Pothos ivy plant. The plant was chosen because it is robust and able to grow under many different conditions, and the protein used – P450 2E1, "2E1" for short – is naturally present in all mammals. In humans, 2E1 is in the liver and is only activated to break down alcohol, so it is not helpful to break down air pollutants. For this reason, the team's work focused on providing its functionality outside the body – they call it a concept of the green liver.

The modified Pothos ivy plant in the laboratory. | Photo credits: Mark Stone / University of Washington

A synthetic version of the rabbit-derived 2E1 protein was introduced into the Pothos ivy so that it was expressed by each cell. In a test tube experiment conducted after the genetic modification, the chloroform concentration fell 82 percent after three days, undetectably by six days, and the benzene concentration dropped eight percent after eight days in vials containing the plants and the respective gases. To take advantage of the changed functionality in a household, the chemicals must be brought to the site of the plant. "If you let a plant grow in the corner of a room, it will make a difference in this room," said Stuart Strand, one of the study's scientists. "But without air flow, a molecule at the other end of the house will take a long time to reach the facility."

Benzene is a common industrial chemical used in the manufacture of plastics, dyes, detergents and pesticides other things and is generally found in both rural and urban areas. Their links to cancer are very clear – the most common being leukemia – which has led to significant regulation. While the amount most exposed to most is very small, it can build up over time, especially in areas of heavy traffic, cigarette smoke and low ventilation. Chloroform is a chemical that can be released into the air when chlorine is used to clean drinking water, wastewater and swimming pools. Although there is no direct correlation between cancer and inhaled chloroform exposure, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers human carcinogens to be a likely candidate for studies linking high levels of exposure to oral cancer.

The plant engineering process As requested, the team took more than two years to complete, compared to months of other similar modification projects. However, the time spent was considered worthwhile due to the results achieved and the hardness of the equipment used. They are now working to add the removal of formaldehyde with another protein to the plant's capabilities. Formaldehyde is a substance found in most building products and tobacco smoke, and is also associated with cancer, asthma and allergies.


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