Reducing exposure to cancerous compounds through GMO plants

Many households have some kind of air purification system, whether it’s attached to our furnace or a standalone unit. Indoor air pollution has now become a factor in our lives. While smoking populations are declining, the importance of in-home air quality has increased for many. That’s because we’re spending more time indoors, the average Canadian spends 90% of their time indoors. Air pollution is not limited to outside sources, it can come from molds, in-door gases, household products and cooking. Some carcinogenic pollutant in our homes come from our furniture and cooking (formaldehyde), showering (chloroform) and automobile emissions (benzene). The World Health Organization estimates that 3.8 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels and kerosene for cooking.

Imagine if you could reduce indoor pollution and improve air quality with a house plant capable of removing cancer-causing pollutants from the air. Scientists at the University of Washington, Seattle, have done just this. They’ve taken ivy, a common houseplant, and genetically modified it to be able to remove volatile organic carcinogens (VOCs).

Holy healthy houseplant batman - GM plantsThe GM ivy was modified[1] to absorb more benzene and chloroform than conventional ivy. Laboratory experiments found the level of benzene in the air was reduced by 75% within one week, while the level of chloroform was reduced by 82% within 3 days. Both VOCs are likely to be present in your home or work, as we’re exposed to benzene (sources of exhaust, smoke, and scented candles), and chloroform from chlorinated water sources.

While this is the start of an exciting and promising technology breakthrough, it’ll be some time before there’s a pot of GM ivy in households. The potential human health benefits from a technology like this could help reduce health care costs. If the technology is capable of removing carcinogenic compounds, further research may discover the ability to remove other in-home air quality impurities that are related to other adverse health effects.

We already know that indoor plants can benefit individuals. Ornamental plants have a positive effect on recovering surgery patients, along with measured psychological benefits and improved well-being of individuals. The modification of plants have untold and untapped potential to improve human health. One new breeding process that targets and changes specific genes by controlled levels, has the potential to improve the nutritional quality of cereals, fruits and vegetables. On a global scale, the potential health benefits could be substantial, with an estimated 1.2 billion people currently micro-nutrient deficient, technologies to improve micronutrient could provide solutions that dramatically reduce this figure (assuming they would be available to those in need and are affordable).

The science behind food innovation is tremendously exciting and the potentials seem limitless. The ability of scientists to better understand plant genomes is likely to improve the nutrition of the plants we rely on, but why stop there? Most of us would like to see the issues of malnourishment resolved, yet this isn’t an issue that affects many of in industrial countries. While improving plant micro-nutrients is essential, I believe similar technologies can be applied to improve our quality of life. The rate of cancer in Canada is 334 per 100,000 individuals, which perhaps improved air quality through GM house plants could be beneficial to many. Perhaps innovations such as this are the future of science and food production.

 


[1] The variety of ivy used in this experiment doesn’t flower indoors. This is important, as the lack of pollen mitigates concerns about environmental impacts from pollination.


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