Posted at 12:00 pm
At the Paris facility of Station F, which prides itself on being “the world’s largest startup campus,” Lionel Mora and Patrick Torbey grow plants. Pothos (Epipremnum aureum), one of the most common and easiest houseplants to keep alive. But these aren’t exactly like the ones we have in our living rooms.
On October 27, his company Neoplants unveiled, after four years of scientific research, a plant capable of cleaning the ambient air of its pollutants, and this, with the same efficiency as 30 standard houseplants.
“A plant is a magnificent organism, almost iconic. What is the strongest function we can give it? Instinctively, we thought if they could purify the air, that would be great,” says Lionel Mora, a former Googler turned co-founder and CEO of Neoplants.
Called Neo P1, this bioengineered plant has been genetically modified to capture and recycle certain air pollutants commonly found in homes, such as benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, and xylene (BTEX), as well as formaldehyde. These volatile organic compounds (VOCs), released into the ambient air, can come from different sources, such as construction materials, furniture, household and kitchen cleaning products.
Some plants have purifying abilities, so they can absorb some contaminants, but most of the time they can’t do anything with them. It gets stored in the cells and they suddenly stop absorbing it.
Patrick Torbey, co-founder of Neoplants
Mr. Torbey, CTO of Neoplants, has a Ph.D. in genome editing (transgenesis and CRISPR/Cas9, a revolutionary technique for easier and more precise editing of DNA sequences).
“Since I was little I have been fascinated by nature and one thing in particular: DNA, which is a molecule that encodes the characteristics of all living organisms,” he says. Changing this molecule changes the characteristics of an organism. »
To increase the purification power of pothos, Patrick Torbey and his team used synthetic biology, a discipline that combines biology and engineering. By inserting synthetic metabolic pathways into the plant, they allow the plant to integrate VOCs into its metabolic chains by transforming formaldehyde into fructose and BTEX into amino acids, thus creating plant matter. Because the plant also lives with a colony of fungi and bacteria that also have VOC-scavenging potential, its microbiome was improved through directed evolution.
The opening of pre-orders for the Neo P1 is scheduled for the first quarter of 2023 with delivery to follow later in the year. Each plant will be sold at a cost of US$179, which includes the pot, specially designed to facilitate maintenance, and the microbiome for a period of three months, which should ideally be renewed every month or so for the time being a month and a half. . The company is initially targeting the US market, but does not rule out eventually expanding to Canada.
Works? Difficult for the consumer to know, as it is difficult to measure the level of VOCs in a room. Neoplants, however, claims to have carried out conclusive tests in collaboration with the University of Lille, the results of which are published in a white paper, which, however, does not constitute a peer-reviewed study.
For the two entrepreneurs, this is a first step towards developing plants that would have a positive impact on our lives and climate change. “Is it possible to add a function to a plant that allows it to absorb and store much more carbon than a normal plant? Patrick Torbey asks.
Improving photosynthesis in plants is a challenge that several laboratories have tried to take on in the past. Without much success so far. But the scientist remains optimistic.
We’re starting to have the tools, CRISPR and others, that allow us to test a new way of inserting much more complex functions into organisms.
Patrick Torbey, co-founder of Neoplants
Data storage and lighting.
The Neoplants laboratory is certainly not the only one trying to multiply the potential of the plants that surround us. Researchers at the University of Washington also succeeded in improving pothos’ decontamination ability by introducing a rabbit gene. At the University of Tennessee, Professor Neal Stewart’s team is investigating phytosensors that would allow plants to detect airborne contaminants such as mold or radon, pathogens, chemicals or radiation. Grow Your Own Cloud, a startup that started as an art project, wants to replace data centers with “data forests” by storing digital data in plants.
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in the laboratory of chemical engineer Michael S. Strano, the plants light up just like in the universe of the film. Avatar. “We want to turn a plant into a lamp,” summarizes the MIT chemical engineering professor in a telephone interview. We’re working to make your lights brighter and last longer, so you don’t have to reapply chemistry as often. We also want the plant to be able to be turned on or off, either by the human or by coupling it to the plant itself, so that when it gets dark, the plant turns on its light, and when it’s daylight, it turns on. off. »
After first succeeding in making watercress plants glow for four hours by using nanoparticle carriers to deliver luciferase, the enzyme that gives fireflies their glow, into the plant, his team last year achieved what Professor described as “a big step towards plant-based lighting”.
Using specialized nanoparticles embedded in the leaves, the engineers have created, without altering its DNA, a plant whose light is 10 times brighter than the previous one, which can store light and can be charged by a light-emitting diode. After 10 seconds of charging, the plant shines for about an hour and can be repeatedly recharged. But ideally, it would convert some of its energy into light and be able to re-emit some of the sunlight it would have captured.
The process can be applied to almost all varieties of plants. According to Michael S. Strano, the time is not far off when our houseplants can be a source of light. “Five or ten years,” he predicts. Could they one day become our main source of lighting? “Absolutely, if we want it. The technology is there. Anything else is just a matter of engineering and cost. One question we need to ask ourselves is: where do we want plant-based lighting and under what conditions? There are also some points to study, such as the interaction of insects with these luminescent plants.
Modification of plant life has the potential to have significant effects on our existence and that of other living things. For Partick Torbey, it is essential that a debate about the limits that should be imposed is carried out in society. “GMOs as such are just a tool. You could say that there are ethical issues surrounding the use of steel. If you make a sword out of it, it can kill people, if you make a fork out of it, it can feed them. It’s a tool that can be very powerful and should be closely examined to make sure you’re doing it right. »
“A lot of ideas”
Light-emitting plants are just one part of the research being done by Strano Research Group.
We have many ideas. More broadly, my research asks this question: can we replace the objects we make out of plastic and printed circuit boards with living, functional plants? This is a question that no one has asked before.
Michael S. Strano, chemical engineer at MIT
And if you allow yourself to dream, the possibilities are endless. the documentary series the future ofProduced by Netflix and The Verge, it also dedicates an episode to it in which Emma Marris, an American author specializing in the environment, maintains that “we barely touch the potential of indoor plants.”
“You could have plants that would be WiFi antennas, extrapolates Michael S. Strano. It could be cameras, chemical sensors, motion detection, and humans. They could detect pathogens, substances that are harmful to humans. What the plant can detect, you could take to the internet by sending it to your cell phone. If you’re talking about plants as a light source, you could have plants that emit any color of light. You could decorate your whole house. Your entire house could be illuminated with herbal lighting. And you wouldn’t need to plug in a single plant. Or change the light bulbs!
- Recommended area to use the Neo P1, which is about the size of a bedroom