PerspectiveSynthetic Biology

Houseplants as home health monitors

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Science  20 Jul 2018:
Vol. 361, Issue 6399, pp. 229-230
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau2560

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For eons, houses and indoor plants have gone together: the first a necessity, and the second an aesthetic feature. Along with pets and humans, houseplants are ubiquitous members in interior “megabiomes” (macroscopic home inhabitants). The numerous benefits of greenery in the built environment include metabolizing human respiratory products (carbon dioxide) and increasing oxygen concentrations. But, houseplants could do so much more. During the past decade, a realization has emerged that building interiors house far more than megabiomes and inanimate objects. The immense built environment—0.5% of terrestrial livable Earth—is an evolving microbiome incubator (1). Analogous to the gut microbiome, in which the gastrointestinal environment shapes the ecology of the microbial community therein, the built environment plays an important role in shaping the evolution and ecology of the home interior microbiome, and burgeoning research is characterizing its components as well as the forces of its evolution (1). Microbiomes are not typically part of interior design per se, but they could be more explicitly considered during architectural and interior designs (2). It has become clear that many factors play a role in interior microbiome ecology and evolution: climate and the human occupants themselves, as well as ventilation regimes, antibiotics, and pesticides, along with catastrophes, such as fires and floods (3). Here, we assess the feasibility of building new microbiome sensing and reporting capabilities into houseplants through synthetic biology approaches. In addition, we suggest how to incorporate these plants into interior designs to benefit human occupants.