Plants could act as an early warning system to protect us from hazardous substances in our homes, according to a new study.
Plants are naturally sensitive to chemicals and bacteria present in the air.
However, scientists are able to artificially enhance this trait by adding more stomata – the tiny opening, or pore, which allows gases inside the cells of plants – to the plants.
Previous research has designed genetically-modified household plants that can change colour or fluoresce when exposed to mould, influenza, volatile compounds (VOCs) and even radon gas.
This allows them to act as a biosensor.
These modified plants have so far only been tested in laboratories, however, scientists say future applications could allow the plants to serve as subtle alarms when something is amiss in our home and offices.
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Plants could be built in to our homes in the future to act as warning systems to protect us from hazardous substances. By genetically altering plants, it is possible to make them super sensitive to what is in the air by giving them more stomata, the ‘gates’ which allow gases inside the cells of plants
The idea of using plants to signal changes in the air started when husband and wife Neal and Susan Stewart were having a conversation with their friend and college Dr Rana Abudayyeh about the potential uses of genetically modified plants.
The University of Tennessee staff then set out devising a blueprint for the future of houseplants, hoping to combine aesthetic benefits with increased functionality.
‘Houseplants are ubiquitous in our home environments,’ says Neal Stewart who co-authored the study.
‘They can do a lot more than just sit there and look pretty,’ he says. ‘They could alert us to the presence of hazards in our environment.’
In a paper, published in the renown journal Science, the authors allude to several environmentally relevant phytosensors have been designed by using biotechnology.
In fact, what was once known as genetic engineering has grown into a whole field of study called synthetic biology, which is the design and construction of new biological entities or systems.
In order to be feasible as a biosensor, the plants of the future would have to appear in dense arrays.
The researchers claim potential ‘plant walls’ might best serve as environmental monitors while also serving our innate need to connect with nature even while indoors.
Dr Neal Stewart said: ‘Through the tools of synthetic biology it’s possible for us to engineer houseplants that can serve as architectural design elements that are both pleasing to our senses and that function as early sensors of environmental agents that could harm our health, like mould, radon gas or high concentrations of volatile organic compounds.’
The authors write in their paper that people have a love of nature and want to bring more of it into their life.
This ‘biophilic’ tendency of humans could be put to use with the signalling plants.
Plants are highly sensitive to anything that is present in the air, and previous research has created plants that change colour or fluoresce when exposed to mould, influenza, volatile compounds (VOCs) and even radon gas
HOW DO PLANTS COMMUNICATE WITH CHEMICALS?
Plants have several ingenious ways of communicating, and they all involve releasing and detecting chemicals.
Some of the most commonly used chemicals are: ethylene, gibberellins, auxin and tannins.
Auxins have an important role in coordination of many growth and behavioural processes in the plant’s life cycle and are essential for plant body development.
The chemical allows the plant to grow towards the sunlight.
It flows in higher concentrations to the darker side of a plant where it encourages growth.
This pushed the tip of the plant, with the flower, towards the light and ensures the plant maximises exposure to
Ethylene is the simplest alkene compound and it is critical in fruit ripening.
When the chemical is released by a fruit, it encourages all other fruits in the vicinity to hasten their ripening process.
This is why ripe and unripe fruit should be kept separately, for if stored together the entire fruit bowl can go ‘off’ quicker.
These chemicals are crucial in the growth of plants as they aid the elongation of individual cells.
They are involved in several other processes too, including fruit ripening, germination and flowering.
These have a role in plant defence, and are naturally produced when a plant is being eaten by an animal.
They are designed to be distasteful and therefore put off the herbivore from continuing its devouring of the plant.
However, some animals have developed a taste for these tannins as an evolutionary response.
This is the evolutionary arms race that drives evolution.
‘Biophilic design builds on our innate affiliation with nature, so integrating biophilic elements within the interior volume carries rich implications spatially and experientially,’ adds Dr Rana Abudayyeh, an assistant professor in the University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design’s School of Interior Architecture.
‘Building responsive capabilities into interior plants is revolutionary. It allows biophilic elements within space to assume a more integral role in the space, actively contributing to the well-being of the occupant holistically.’
The scientists have plans to expand their research out of the lab and ultimately in to homes, schools, hospitals and offices.
Dr Abudayyeh continued: ‘Our work should result in an interior environment that is more responsive to overall health and well-being of its occupants while continuing to provide the benefits plants bring to people every day.
‘I’m thrilled that my students will be part of this breakthrough research as they integrate this kind of innovation into designing interior spaces.
‘This long-term project is a unique and intriguing partnership between two seemingly unrelated disciplines, interior architecture and plant sciences.’