Some of us have become plant parents because we know that, aside from making our houses look prettier, some houseplants can also work to purify the air indoors. We’ve also found out that the plants can reduce harmful airborne chemicals, dust, and germs, as discovered by NASA’s 1989 Clean Air Study.
But, the plants’ current abilities haven’t satisfied some people. And so, they’ve tried to push the concept further by engineering plants to detoxify the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found in various household products, materials, and furniture.
That was why Lionel Mora and Patrick Torbey founded Neoplants in 2018 in Paris.
Both share the same mission to merge aesthetics with functionality, drawing inspiration from the potential of biology to imbue common items with entirely new functions.
For instance, their GMO houseplants could clandestinely purify the air while people or plant parents can have better aesthetics around the space and simply enjoy them.
With that in mind, they’ve made their startup which focuses on designing genetically modified houseplants with the ability to neutralize common indoor air pollutants like benzene and formaldehyde.
After over 4 years of research, Neoplants finally introduced their first product last autumn, which we can pre-order for $179.
The product, a plant called Neo P1, belongs to the pothos variety commonly found adorning homes and offices. It’s an attractive plant with heart-shaped leaves which thrives in low light conditions and needs minimal watering, making it a convenient choice for casual or seasoned houseplant enthusiasts.
Neo P1 doesn’t work alone, however. It needs an essential component of the design: the soil’s microbiome in which it grows. Neoplants’ scientists introduced naturally efficient bacteria for detoxifying benzene and toluene into the soil and evolved them to enhance their efficiency.
When we purchase Neo P1, we’ll get the special soil which we can replenish to the plants periodically as they grow.
Houseplants and their magic
Now, while it’s entirely achievable to purify indoor air with the current, traditional plant varieties, we need a lot of them to have any noticeable effects.
Torbey, Neoplants co-founder, said, “Plants have interesting phytoremediation capabilities that allow them to absorb pollutants, but significant impact only takes place if dozens of them are present in a single room.
“This caveat often gets overlooked and is what we set out to address when developing Neo P1.”
At the same time, conventional air purifiers are not exactly a fool proof solution because they struggle with small organic molecules despite their ability to trap particles.
Since we don’t always want too many plants at our houses (imagine the time it takes to tend to even the most low-maintenance ones), Neoplants wants to focus on developing something to get rid of indoor air pollutants that mechanical air purifiers cannot effectively handle.
The startup has rigorously examined its product, and the development team had based their research on NASA’s study—they believe that the study is a benchmark to evaluate the engineered plants’ capacity to decrease pollutant levels.
Then, a group of people with doctoral degrees did a thorough experiment which they did together with Ecole Mines-Télécom of Lille University, a leading institution in France for assessing indoor air quality.
Here, they compared conventional plants with the genetically modified counterparts. The result? Neoplants’ genetically engineered plants showed a staggering improvement in reducing specific volatile pollutants 30 times better compared to the plants observed in the NASA’s study.
These findings from Neoplants were discussed during the SynBioBeta2023 conference.
Torbey commented, “Testing Neo P1’s efficacy against longstanding benchmarks established by NASA was an ambitious—albeit necessary—initiative to measure years of bioengineering efforts in our mission to improve indoor air.
“Our comparative analysis quantifies Neo P1’s greatly enhanced performance when capturing volatile organic compounds, and also demonstrates the possibilities that plant synthetic biology has today, and the promises for tomorrow, to positively impact our health and the environment.”
Startups that strive to change plants’ genetics
In 2022, Neoplants successfully secured $20 million in a seed funding round led by Heartcore Capital—a venture capital firm known for supporting founders in building groundbreaking brands and products.
Some other prominent technology investors have joined in funding the startup’s efforts as well. All of them have helped Neoplants to develop Neo P1 and the making of a 12,000-square-foot laboratory built to be the pioneer of the future of plant engineering.
While Neoplants is determined to advance air purification in a “natural” way, their ambitions extend beyond this as they are also in the process of creating plants that can capture carbon.
Other than Neoplants, there’s another player in the field of plant synthetic biology is Living Carbon, a California-based company. It specializes in the genetic modification of trees to enhance their capacity for capturing and storing carbon.
Slightly different from the French startup, Living Carbon engineers “super trees” with the ability to photosynthesize more efficiently.
Since they trees get more CO2 in a shorter amount of time, they can grow faster and have more resistance to wear and tear, they make sure that the carbon they’ve collected will stay in for a long time. Pretty neat, right?
Some of us have believed that anything GMO is bad, and some sectors or media have also pushed this belief. So, right now, despite the fact that there are studies and advancements about genetically modified plants, public acceptance hasn’t kept up with them.
Plant engineering could help us improve food security by protecting crops from disease and boosting their resilience to climate change. However, the current policies and regulations have made things slightly more complicated for humanity to fully embrace the emerging technologies.
To put things into perspective, the approval procedure for GMO crops in agriculture had traditionally taken years.
Maybe public acceptance and regulation can change in the future as we face unforeseeable challenges. But for now, companies and enterprises like Neoplants are trying to reshape public perception. They have showcased practical applications of GMO plants that can convince more people to explore the potential of engineered plants.