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
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.