Inspired by smoke detectors and smart home monitors, scientists are genetically engineering houseplants to sense harmful chemicals from mold and other kinds of fungi—and alert homeowners to their presence.

If they can figure out how houseplants respond to other threats, such as radon and airborne pathogens, researchers could one day engineer “smart plants” to tackle a whole host of problems.

The researchers write that there are numerous benefits of greenery in the built environment, that include metabolizing human respiratory products (carbon dioxide) and increasing oxygen concentrations. But, that houseplants could do so much more.

Analogous to the gut microbiome, in which the gastrointestinal environment shapes the ecology of the microbial community therein, they write:

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. 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.


C. Neal Stewart Jr Houseplants as home health monitors DOI: 10.1126/science.aau2560