July 20, 2018 Unlikely Partnership Yields Unique Research toward “Smart” Houseplants

Darkened room with plant wall changing color
In the future, your houseplants could alert you to health hazards in your home.

That’s the subject of breakthrough research by unlikely partners:  The School of Interior Architecture and the Department of Plant Sciences.

Led by Rana Abudayyeh, assistant professor in Interior Architecture; Neal Stewart, professor of plant sciences in the UT Herbert College of Agriculture; and Susan Stewart, a 2018 Interior Architecture graduate, this unique research is featured in a perspective published in Science magazine, one of the world’s leading academic journals, in July.

The team is looking at using synthetic biology to engineer houseplants to “tell” us when a hazardous substance, such as mold, radon gas, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) or other harmful pollutants, is present in the atmosphere inside our homes.

The authors of the perspective believe that “plant walls” inside our homes would provide the dense foliage needed to act as biosensors while also serving our innate need for plants.  The plants would alter their normal states, such as changing color, to alert us to potential hazards.

“Biophlic design builds on our innate affiliation with nature, so integrating biophlic elements within the interior volume carries rich implications spatially and experientially,” says Abudayyeh.  “Building responsive capabilities into interior plants is revolutionary.  It allows biophlic elements within space to assume a more integral role in the space, actively contributing to the well-being of the occupant holistically.”

While the idea of using plants as biosensors is not new—it’s used in farming and other agricultural environments—the idea of creating “smart” houseplants is. [Read more about the use of biosensing plants in agriculture.]

“The innovative implementation of biophilic strategies into interior spaces has been a focus of a number of design studios I have led,” says Abudayyeh.  “One of my top students, Susan was familiar with my research and her husband Neal’s research, and she initiated this collaboration.”

“Houseplants are ubiquitous in our 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 molds, radon gas or high concentrations of volatile organic compounds,” he said.

The team is continuing to work on the long-term project from both the lab and design studio.  They hope that together, they can bring biosensing houseplants to homes with future applications in hospitals, office environments, schools and other interior spaces.

“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,” says Abudayyeh. “I’m thrilled that my students will be part of this breakthrough research as they integrate this kind of innovation into designing interior spaces,” she said.



Shown below:

Perspective images of a conceptual phytosensor (plant) wall. Shown left is the lighted room, and shown right is the darkened room under sense-and-report photonic conditions. The glass partition (inset on left) concentrates HVAC return air across fungal VOC-sensing houseplants. The inset image on the right shows an engineered Nicotiana plant for constitutive expression of GFP yielding green fluorescence under built-in blue or UV lights next to a wild type red fluorescent plant under the same conditions. Photo (inset, right) by Francisco Palacios. Design renderings by Susan G. Stewart and Rana Abudayyeh.  Credit to UT Institute of Agriculture for information.