Houseplants are on the rise, , and scientists are starting to look at how they could do more than just look nice. One idea from the University of Tennessee: houseplants as sensors detecting environmental problems inside the house.
Genetically engineering houseplants would allow them to react to problems like "mold, radon gas or high concentrations of volatile organic compounds," Neal Stewart, the lead author of a paper exploring the concept, in a press statement.
Stewart was inspired by his wife, he tells Seniorhelpline. " She decided to go back to school after a few years. She wanted to go into interior design. From her, I learned about built environments and the new areas of research that cross biology and built environment. I’ve been building these plants to detect things for a long time and thought, that would be a nice application." Susan Stewart is listed as a co-author on the paper.
The idea is built on the fact that you're never truly alone in your home. Instead, you're surrounded by what Stewart calls an "evolving microbiome incubator" in the paper, published in . Similar to the gut microbiome, the home's microbiome is reliant on the home's surroundings. Stewarts sees plants not only as something that can improve that microbiome, but could detect future problems.
The trick would be to "make a plant that has a gene switch, an off to on switch, when a particular stimulus is present," Stewart in a brief interview with Science Update. Stewart has been involved in making plants react to certain conditions for years, like too much or not enough nitrogen in the atmosphere. When seen through certain filters, these plants appear to glow.
There would be a number of possible uses for such a houseplant. Stewart's first thought, he tells Seniorhelpline, would be citizen-science projects across the country, raising and nurturing houseplants to show the invisible world surrounding plant owners. But he's also open to the idea that these plants could act in some ways like a homegrown Internet of Things device, detecting particulates in the air and offering feedback. And unlike Alexa, plants are not connected to the cloudn and definitely can't hear what you're saying.
The military has also considered plant detection. Last year, the Department of Defense's experimental wing, DARPA, looking to take advantage of "nature's silent sentinels." But that program appears to be more focused on outdoor plants.
Stewart says the biggest surprise in researching houseplant genetic modification is "how little biotechnology has been done with indoor plants. It’s almost nothing. The first challenge for me is to start working with these indoor plants. Being able to mine the DNA, building out the toolbox on these interior plants could be really easy, could be really hard. But we’re not married to help any single species."
With a variety of plants to choose from, like Chlorophytum comosum (spider plants) to Aspidistra elatior (cast-iron plants), there's no telling where exactly Stewart's research will lead. But he's eager to find out. Over the next couple years, he plans to investigate houseplants and produce a plant that can do more for a millennial than make a good Instagram shot.