Announced late last year, NeoPlants marquee product is the Neo P1, the first houseplant genetically engineered to fix indoor air pollution. Originally a red, tropical vine native to the Solomon Islands, this high-tech pothos known as “Devil’s Ivy” is indistinguishable from the real thing. It is photogenic, fast growing and hard to kill. But unlike conventional nursery stock, it fixes indoor air pollutants lost by traditional air purifiers, filtering particulate matter: volatile organic compounds (VOCs) emitted by paint, gas stoves and building materials.
“It’s really a two-pronged approach,” says Patrick Torbay, chief technology officer and co-founder of NeoPlants. The first prong is genetic engineering of plant metabolism. By introducing additional genes into the plant, Torbay’s Paris-based team has co-opted Pothos to produce enzymes that allow it to use captured VOCs as a carbon source in normal cellular metabolism. In a virtuous cycle, more air pollution only creates more plant nutrients and greater pollution resistance.
The second method is bacteria. In the neoplant, naturally, microbes do the heavy lifting; The two strains of symbiotic bacteria contained in NeoP1 soil convert formaldehyde and BTEX – a class of pollutants known as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene – into harmless sugars and amino acids.
“I’d be disappointed if there was a plant on the moon and not a neoplant.”
“Bacteria are very important parts of most nutrient cycles,” says Jane Brophy, a Stanford researcher whose lab develops genetically engineered plants that are more resilient to climate change. But microbiomes are very difficult to protect. As soon as you send a product to a person, the viability of these bacteria decreases. This vulnerability appears to be NeoPlants’ business model: The company uses proprietary microbeads, which the company calls “power drops,” to maintain air purification efficiency. These should be applied monthly like replacing the filter in the air cleaner. “Dyson, they sell their filters,” said founder and CEO Lionel Mora. “We sell the microbiome.”
Currently, the POTUS itself is responsible for only 30% of the Neo P1’s air-purifying capacity – the microbiome accounts for the rest – but Mora and Torbay expect that to change soon. Microorganisms are faster to improve than plants, so “the limits of what we can do with plants are still ahead of us,” says Mora. We are currently at the frontier of what can be done, but we see great potential.