Houseplants Could One Day Monitor Home Health

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. (Image: via   pixabay  /  CC0 1.0)
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. (Image: via pixabay / CC0 1.0)

Neal Stewart and his University of Tennessee coauthors of a study published in Science, explore the future of houseplants as aesthetically pleasing and functional sirens of home health. The idea is to genetically engineer houseplants to serve as subtle alarms that something is amiss in our home and office environments.

Stewart, a professor of plant sciences in the UT Herbert College of Agriculture — who also holds the endowed Racheff Chair of Excellence in Plant Molecular Genetics — came up with the idea during conversations with his wife, Susan, and Rana Abudayyeh, an assistant professor in the UT College of Architecture and Design’s School of Interior Architecture.

Both Susan Stewart and Abudayyeh are coauthors of the article. Susan Stewart recently graduated from the school as a non-traditional, re-entry student, and Abudayyeh was among her professors. This is not the first time that plants have been proposed as biosensors. The authors point out that to date, several environmentally relevant phytosensors have been designed by using biotechnology.

Perspective images of a conceptual phytosensor (plant) wall. Shown left is the lighted room, and shown right is the darkened room under sense-and-report photonic conditions. The glass partition (inset on left) concentrates HVAC return air across fungal VOC-sensing houseplants. The inset image on the right shows an engineered Nicotiana plant for constitutive expression of GFP yielding green fluorescence under built-in blue or UV lights next to a wild type red fluorescent plant under the same conditions. Photo (inset, right) by Francisco Palacios. Design renderings by Susan G. Stewart and Rana Abudayyeh.

Perspective images of a conceptual phytosensor (plant) wall. Shown left is the lighted room, and shown right is the darkened room under sense-and-report photonic conditions. The glass partition (inset on left) concentrates HVAC return air across fungal VOC-sensing houseplants. The inset image on the right shows an engineered Nicotiana plant for constitutive expression of GFP yielding green fluorescence under built-in blue or UV lights next to a wild type red fluorescent plant under the same conditions. (Image: (inset, right) by Francisco Palacios. Design renderings by Susan G. Stewart and Rana Abudayyeh)

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.

Synthetic biology is a valuable tool for agricultural production, allowing farmers to grow plants designed to resist drought or certain pests, and Neal Stewart has authored or coauthored several studies involving the engineering of plants to react to certain conditions, like the presence of too much or too little nitrogen.

Such plants “glow” when viewed with specifically designed filters. Once this technology is commercialized, it may allow farmers of the future to adjust their management plans accordingly. What is new, and which the authors discuss in the Science article, is the concept of applying synthetic biology to houseplants beyond aesthetic reasons, like larger blooms or variegated foliage. Neal Stewart said in a statement:

Stewart explains that plant biosensors could be designed to react to harmful agents in any number of ways, such as gradually changing the color of their foliage or through the use of fluorescence, saying:

The authors postulate that dense populations of biosensors would be needed, so architectural design elements like “plant walls” might best serve as environmental monitors, while also serving our innate need to connect with nature even while indoors. Abudayyeh explained:

While the Science article presents the concept, Neal Stewart and Abudayyeh have plans to bring their ideas from the lab to future blueprints and ultimately to our homes, schools, hospitals, and offices. Neal Stewart and Abudayyeh have already collaborated on a grant proposal, and they plan to pursue additional projects in the future. Abudayyeh continues:

As the authors indicate in the Science article, the potential benefits to society of such collaborative research are enormous.

Provided by: University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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