Engineering Minute

Engineering Minute – Air Cleaning Houseplant

Researchers at University of Washington have modified a houseplant, pothos ivy, to filter chloroform and benzene from the surrounding air. The plant is designed to filter chemicals too small to be trapped by home HEPA air filters. Chloroform and benzene can build up within a person's home after showering or boiling water and both chemicals have been linked to cancer. The genetically modified plant produces a protein that transforms these chemicals into molecules that support its growth. The team's research was recently published in Environmental Science & Technology.


air cleaning houseplant
Researchers at the University of Washington have genetically modified a common houseplant — pothos ivy — to remove chloroform and benzene from the air around it. Credit: University of Washington

From the University of Washington article: "The team decided to use a protein called cytochrome P450 2E1, or 2E1 for short, which is present in all mammals, including humans. In our bodies, 2E1 turns benzene into a chemical called phenol and chloroform into carbon dioxide and chloride ions. But 2E1 is located in our livers and is turned on when we drink alcohol. So it’s not available to help us process pollutants in our air.

The researchers made a synthetic version of the gene that serves as instructions for making the rabbit form of 2E1. Then they introduced it into pothos ivy so that each cell in the plant expressed the protein. Pothos ivy doesn’t flower in temperate climates so the genetically modified plants won’t be able to spread via pollen."


“This whole process took more than two years,” said lead author Long Zhang, research scientist in the civil and environmental engineering department at University of Washington. “That is a long time, compared to other lab plants, which might only take a few months. But we wanted to do this in pothos because it’s a robust houseplant that grows well under all sort of conditions.”


Read more about the air cleaning houseplant at University of Washington.