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This $119 houseplant is bioengineered to remove harmful air pollution in your home.

Ellyn Lapointe   

This $119 houseplant is bioengineered to remove harmful air pollution in your home.
  • Biotech company Neoplants just released the first houseplant grown to reduce indoor air pollution.
  • This plant, called Neo Px, gets its pollution-eating superpower from genetically engineered bacteria.

Looking at Neo Px, you'd never know that it was anything but a typical houseplant. But on a microscopic level, this plant is supercharged with billions of pollution-eating bacteria.

This week, the France-based biotech company Neoplants released the first houseplant bioengineered to remove harmful chemicals from indoor air. It targets volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are emitted by the everyday stuff in our homes: gas stoves, paints, even furniture.

Indoor air can be two to five times (and in extreme cases, up to 100 times) more polluted than outdoor air, according to the American Lung Association. This is, in part, driven by higher levels of VOCs indoors. Long-term exposure to these compounds can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation, headaches and dizziness, even liver damage and cancer.

The best ways to remove VOCs from your home are opening the windows and getting rid of their sources, Glenn Morrison, a University of North Carolina environmental science and engineering professor who studies indoor air pollution, told BI. Some types of mechanical air purifiers can remove them too, but many of them can produce other harmful chemicals like carbon monoxide, ozone, and formaldehyde.

But Neoplants co-founders Patrick Torbey and Lionel Mora weren't satisfied with these options. They argue that opening windows only temporarily reduces indoor pollution to outside levels, and not everyone can easily get rid of VOC sources in their homes. What's more, they believe existing VOC-removing technologies aren't worth their drawbacks.

So, they turned to biology to invent their own solution. The result, Neo Px, is 30 times more effective at removing indoor air pollution than the average houseplant, Torbey and Mora told Business Insider.

"What we care about is putting nature at the center of innovation again," Torbey said.

Harnessing the power of bacteria

Non-engineered houseplants are equipped with some natural air-purifying power, and some types are more effective than others. But research has shown that it would take hundreds of regular houseplants to purify the air inside a 1,500 square-foot home.

Torbey and Mora wanted to achieve air purification with a single houseplant. To do that, they hacked into the plant's microbiome.

They targeted a strain of bacteria called Pseudomonas putida, which have a particular appetite for three common VOCs: benzene, toluene, and xylene. There are tens of thousands of types of VOCs that can be present in homes, Morrison points out. But Neoplants chose to target these three because they are especially harmful and prevalent in indoor spaces, Mora said.

This species of bacteria can live off VOCs as their sole carbon source, metabolizing them into harmless sugars and amino acids, according to the Neoplants white paper.

What's more, these bacteria naturally occur in the soil around plant roots and form a mutually beneficial relationship with their host plants. If Torbey and Mora could figure out how to supercharge these VOC-eating bacteria, they'd create a natural air-purifying system.

Through directed evolution — the process of reproducing organisms in a lab to enhance a selected trait over time — they created a new version of Pseudomonas putida that is extremely effective at metabolizing VOCs.

"These are like tiny, tiny air purifying machines that build more air purifying machines the more pollution there is," Torbey said.

But keeping these bacteria abundant presented a challenge. Plant microbiomes are difficult to maintain, and their viability declines as soon as you ship that plant to someone, Jennifer Brophy, assistant professor of Bioengineering at Stanford University, told MIT Tech Review.

To solve that problem, Neo Px comes with "power drops," a solution of their engineered bacteria that can be used to replenish the plant's microbiome once a month and ensure that it's working at its maximum air-purifying capacity, similar to regularly replacing an air purifier's filter.


UNC's Morrison thinks that there are other limitations to consider before purchasing Neo Px. "It doesn't really matter how much they modify the plant or modify the bacteria in the soil if they can't get the air into and through it," he said.

Neo Px is potted in a biodegradable shell that's designed with vents to maximize airflow between the soil and the room, but Morrison argues that the airflow would still be too minimal to make a significant difference in air quality for the average home. "It might actually remove some VOCs, it just doesn't remove very much," he said.

But Torbey and Mora are confident in their product. "We know that phytoremediation (plants-based solution) is not an approach that most in the indoor air quality community believe in," Torbey told BI in a later email in response to Morrison's skepticism. He and his colleagues have built two VOC measurement rooms at their headquarters in Paris, which they will use to study the phytoremediation potential of their system.

"We will be publishing this data as soon as possible to help the world better understand the power of phytoremediation," he added.

Unpacking the Neo Px system

The Neo Px air purifying system comes with a marble queen pothos plant, popular species of houseplant which serves as the perfect host for their VOC-eating bacteria, Mora said.

Eventually, Mora and Torbey hope to expand Neoplants to include different types of plants, but for now, pothos is the only species available for purchase.

The Neo Px package includes the biodegradable, vented shell, which also has a built-in self-watering system. "Even people who don't have a green thumb at all can very easily take care of this plant," Mora said.

This $119 package comes with a six-month supply of power drops. When they run out, customers can sign up to auto-replenish them for $39 every three months.

Striving for sustainability

For Mora and Torbey, the most exciting aspect of this new product is that it's made entirely in the US. Even the recycled plastic and agricultural waste used to make their self-watering shell comes from the US.

Achieving this proved challenging, Mora said, but he and Torbey wanted to manufacture their product as close to their main customer base as possible. To them, it didn't make sense to ship a product designed to clean the air across the world. And manufacturing Neo Px in the US helped ensure their product was made responsibly.

"What we tried to do is build a product that is as sustainable as possible. So, you don't need to use any electricity, you don't need to replace filters that have a lot of pollution in them and throw them away," Mora said.

This sustainable model is part of Neoplants overarching goal: to drive progress towards solutions to even bigger environmental issues.

"If we project ourselves in five years from now, not only will we have this product family for indoor spaces that people can put in their homes, but we'll also start hitting some of the first fundamental technical milestones for climate change applications," Mora said.

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