We like to keep the air in our homes as clean as possible, and sometimes we use HEPA air filters to keep offending allergens and dust particles at bay.

But some hazardous compounds are too small to be trapped in these filters. Small molecules like chloroform, which is present in small amounts in chlorinated water, or benzene, which is a component of gasoline, build up in our homes when we shower or boil water, or when we store cars or lawn mowers in attached garages. Both benzene and chloroform exposure have been linked to cancer.

Now researchers at the University of Washington have genetically modified a common houseplant — pothos ivy — to remove chloroform and benzene from the air around it. The modified plants express a protein, called 2E1, that transforms these compounds into molecules that the plants can then use to support their own growth. The team will publish its findings Wednesday, Dec. 19 in Environmental Science & Technology.

“People haven’t really been talking about these hazardous organic compounds in homes, and I think that’s because we couldn’t do anything about them,” said senior author Stuart Strand, who is a research professor in the UW’s civil and environmental engineering department. “Now we’ve engineered houseplants to remove these pollutants for us.”

The team decided to use a protein called cytochrome P450 2E1, or 2E1 for short, which is present in all mammals, including humans. In our bodies, 2E1 turns benzene into a chemical called phenol and chloroform into carbon dioxide and chloride ions. But 2E1 is located in our livers and is turned on when we drink alcohol. So it’s not available to help us process pollutants in our air.

“We decided we should have this reaction occur outside of the body in a plant, an example of the ‘green liver’ concept,” Strand said. “And 2E1 can be beneficial for the plant, too. Plants use carbon dioxide and chloride ions to make their food, and they use phenol to help make components of their cell walls.”

Read more at the University of Washington