plant wall

Researchers from the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture presented a concept of houseplants as aesthetically pleasing and functional alarm systems of home health. They have effectively connected two seemingly unrelated disciplines – plant sciences and architectural design. Genetically engineered houseplants could detect viruses, such as influenza virus, odors, and other volatile organic compounds that plants can “inhale” through their leaves.

The idea of plants serving as biosensors is not new. A research group led by Neal Stewart, a professor of plant sciences in the UT Herbert College of Agriculture, is on a mission of realizing the idea of houseplants as warning systems. They could indicate when something is amiss in our home and office environments. Rana Abudayyeh, an assistant professor at the UT College of Architecture and Design’s School of Interior Architecture and co-author of the article, was in charge of the architecture aspect of the study.

“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,” Abudayyeh said for UTIA News.

In a perspective published in Science, co-authors explore the future prospects of houseplants. They set their crosshair at synthetic biology; a field dedicated to design and construct of new biological entities or systems. Stewart has led or took part in several studies involving engineering of plants to react to certain conditions, like the presence of too much or too little nitrogen. Such plants “glow” when observed with specifically-designed filters. His goal is to commercialize such technologies, which will allow farmers to adjust their management plans accordingly.

The new approach provides a new concept of applying synthetic biology to houseplants beyond aesthetic reasons. “Houseplants are ubiquitous in our home environments,” says Neal Stewart. “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.”

Plant biosensors could be designed to react to harmful agents in many ways. For example, they could gradually change the color of their foliage or use fluorescence as a bioindicator. Researchers are also led by principles of biophilic design, which incorporates natural materials, natural light, vegetation, nature views and other experiences of the natural world into the modern built environment.

“Biophilic design builds on our innate affiliation with nature, so integrating biophilic elements within the interior volume carries rich implications spatially and experientially,” said Abudayyeh.

For having efficient indoor biosensors that serve as environmental monitors, the ideal architectural design element would be a “plant wall” (or vertical garden). This way, one can have dense populations of plants even in small buildings and do not have to sacrifice space on floors. Plant walls are more and more popular because of aesthetic, clean air, and they fulfill the innate need to connect with nature even while indoors. Phytosensor wall, would be on step further.

“Building responsive capabilities into interior plants is revolutionary. It allows biophilic elements within space to assume a more integral role in the space, actively contributing to the well-being of the occupant holistically,” said Abudayyeh.

Neal Stewart and Abudayyeh want to bring their ideas from the lab to future blueprints and eventually to our homes, schools, hospitals and offices. They plan to pursue even further projects in the future. The research group have already collaborated on a grant proposal.

“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,” said Abudayyeh.

We are going to see more and more examples of such collaborative research, as it opens new possibilities and enables scientists to start thinking out-of-the-box.  Ultimately, the potential benefits to society are enormous.

Learn more about biophlic design in the video below:

By Andreja Gregoric, MSc