By Elizabeth Kovacs, DU Quark Intern
As I have expressed in my blogs previously, I enjoy writing for the Quark and participating in the Quark internship because it allows me to research topics that interest me that I otherwise may not learn about. While these are often topics that are inspired by discussions in my classes, I try to focus on things that I am not specifically learning about but want to learn more. In this case, it has allowed me to expand on a topic that I had previously researched as part of a group project in a plant biodiversity course last semester. As my contribution to the group, I was in charge of actually selecting the plants to be used and measuring and interpreting the data for air quality before and after the plants were introduced. While we used three different types of plants with known air filtration qualities, when I expanded on the research on my own, I chose only one. I selected golden pothos, or Epipremnum aureum, for its low-maintenance nature, ease in propagation, and how readily available it is.
I struggled with this individual research, because I didn’t just want to repeat the same experiment I completed with my group. We already know that plants have air filtration qualities, some more than others. We generally know what type of airborne toxins they filter out as well, which is what the air quality monitors are geared toward testing. While research like this is still important and has its place in science, I felt as though it would be repetitive to simply test this plants’ specific effect on air quality indoors, especially since testing this in my own home is not the same as testing it in a control-free structured lab environment. To decide how to make this research more interesting and less repetitive, I looked toward what we don’t know about plants and air filtration.
While we know that plants improve indoor air quality, the mechanism by which they do so is largely unknown. Whether they filter the toxins and reuse them or whether they are able to store them in the leaves, stems, or roots and soil is up for debate. I originally had set out to test the soil quality to see if it was affected after being exposed to many toxins in the home. However, there may be no correlation between particulate matter and concentration of soil nutrients, and testing for anything other than Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, and pH would require lab access that I do not have. This would also probably require propagating and growing the plant to maturation before testing to really be able to be certain that the roots and soil were not affected by any other indoor air contaminants from their previous environments.
Finally, I decided that the best way I could measure how plants best absorb toxins was to measure the somatic absorption. The somatic absorption is the absorption through the leaves themselves, so to do this I had to separate the leaves from the rest of the plant. Since I planned to cut and propagate the plant regardless, this seemed like a good idea. To propagate a plant, the stem is cut and placed in water until roots begin to grow. To make the experiment as accurate as possible and eliminate as much experimental error as possible, I needed to have an equal amount of leaves on the plant itself that I have propagating in water. If the results end up being similar between the control plant and the propagated stems, this will indicate that somatic absorption is the main factor that works in purifying the air in golden pothos plants.
I hope that this research will be able to stand out from previous research on houseplants and help in understanding the mechanism in which golden pothos is able to purify indoor air so effectively. This research is important considering how many individuals struggle with poor indoor air quality, many times without even realizing it. Cleaning products, perfumes and air fresheners, candles, cooking, old building materials as well as antiquated utilities and appliances are all things that can contribute to poor indoor air quality, specifically large and small particulates, which is what the Speck air quality monitor I am using tests for. Recent studies have shown that large and small particulates in cigarettes actually may be what causes lung cancer linked to smoking, so eliminating these in the home is incredibly important for human health.
I decided to use the golden pothos with this in mind, as it is such a low maintenance plant. These properties make an effective and realistic way to improve indoor air quality and subsequently, human health. Its ease in propagation means that it can easily be cut and shared with friends and family to benefit more individuals and makes it easily accessible. Its low maintenance water and light requirements make it ideal for even those who find it difficult to keep houseplants alive. I am excited to finish this research and detail a primary research project such as this in the Quark.