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Gas-detecting plants could act as home health monitors

Scientists are growing an alternative to the bulky plastic carbon monoxide detectors that keep homes safe. Some day in the future, gas-detecting plants that change color to warn us of deadly fumes may be a common add-on in homes.

“Houseplants are ubiquitous in our home environments,” Dr. Neal Stewart of the University of Tennessee, who co-authored the study, told the Daily Mail. “They can do a lot more than just sit there and look pretty. They could alert us to the presence of hazards in our environment.”

Plants are already acting as a kind of air filter in many homes. Houseplants have been shown to help filter toxins like formaldehyde out of the air.

But the researchers working on the new study thinks that with a little genetic engineering, they can do a lot more. By adding more stomata – the tiny openings that allow gases like carbon dioxide into plants’ cells – scientists believe they can turn everyday ferns or peace lilies into gas-detecting plants that can change color to alert their owners to carbon monoxide or harmful bacteria.

They’ve already seen some success in the lab. A few modified plants have been able to detect flu, mold, radon gas and other substances, changing color or fluorescing when they do.

While more research is needed before any of the plants will be ready for public release, Stewart and his colleagues see a future where homes come equipped with wall panels of greenery – the gas-detecting plants would be most effective in dense groupings, the team noted.

“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,” Stewart told the Mail.

The study has been published in the journal Science.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

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