Houseplants to be Engineered to Serve as Home Health Sirens in Future

Neal Stewart and his University of Tennessee co-authors study the future of houseplants as visually pleasing and functional warnings of home health. This perspective was published in the July 20th issue of Science.

Design renderings by Susan G. Stewart and Rana Abudayyeh. (Image credit: The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture)

The idea is to genetically develop houseplants to act as subtle alarms that something is not right in the home or 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 - proposed 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 the article’s coauthors. Susan Stewart recently graduated from the school as a non-traditional, re-entry student, and Abudayyeh was among her professors.

Plants have been suggested for use as biosensors even in the past. The authors emphasize that so far several environmentally applicable phytosensors have been engineered by using biotechnology. In effect, what was once called genetic engineering has expanded into an entire field of study known as synthetic biology, which is the design and construction of new biological systems or entities.

Synthetic biology is a beneficial tool for agricultural production, enabling farmers to grow plants engineered to resist drought or particular pests, and Neal Stewart has authored or coauthored numerous studies concerning the engineering of plants to react to specific conditions, like the presence of too little or too much nitrogen. Such plants “glow” when observed with specifically built filters. Once this technology is marketed, farmers of the future may be able to alter their management plans according to it.

The new aspect of this technology, discussed by the researchers in the Science article, is the concept of applying synthetic biology to houseplants beyond aesthetic purposes, like variegated foliage or larger blooms.

Houseplants are ubiquitous in our home environments. 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 mold, radon gas or high concentrations of volatile organic compounds.

Neal Stewart, Co-Author

Stewart elucidates that plant biosensors could be engineered to react to detrimental agents in several ways, such as steadily changing the color of their foliage or via the use of fluorescence. “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.”

The researchers hypothesize that dense populations of biosensors would be required, so architectural design elements like “plant walls” might ideally serve as environmental monitors while also serving man’s inborn need to bond with nature even while staying indoors.

Biophlic design builds on our innate affiliation with nature, so integrating biophlic elements within the interior volume carries rich implications spatially and experientially. Building responsive capabilities into interior plants is revolutionary. It allows biophlic elements within space to assume a more integral role in the space, actively contributing to the well-being of the occupant holistically.

Rana Abudayyeh, Assistant Professor

Although the Science article just presents the idea, Neal Stewart and Abudayyeh plan to adapt their ideas from the lab to future blueprints and eventually to homes, hospitals, schools, and offices. Neal Stewart and Abudayyeh have already partnered on a grant proposal, and they plan to pursue more projects in the future.

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.

Rana Abudayyeh, Assistant Professor

As the researchers specify in the Science article, the potential advantages to society of such collaborative research are huge.

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