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Genetically modified thermogenic plants to serve as domestic bio-heaters

Image credit: https://www.amusingplanet.com/2015/10/warm-blooded-plants.html

Povilas S
Povilas S Oct 22, 2022
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Naturally thermogenic plants with some of their properties modified through genetic engineering to be cultivated and used as bio-heaters in indoor spaces.
The idea was inspired by this challenge.
  • Have some greenery in your home that warms you up not only emotionally, but also physically.
  • Contrary to animals (that could also serve the function of bio-heaters), plants are stationary, they don't need food and comparably very little care and attention. All they need is water, soil, and preferably some fertilizer from time to time which can be homemade compost from your own biowaste.
  • Due to the purpose of these plants, one wouldn't eat the GMO material and since they would be kept in enclosed spaces and their main insect-attracting property (the smell) would be eliminated (see the "how" section below) it means less chance of transfer of genetic material by insects causing potential ecological problems.
  • Perfect for cultivating plants in vehicles in the cold season.
The background: Thermogenic plants can produce heat for hours, days or even weeks, excess temperatures vary from a few to more than 30 degrees Celsius. Araceae is the plant family containing the best-known and, perhaps, most of the existing thermogenic plants. Apart from Araceae, there are thermogenic species in other plant families, such as Annonaceae, Arecaceae, Cycadaceae, Nymphaceae, and Rafflesiaceae.
The heat-producing parts of thermogenic plants are their flowers, hence the duration of heat production is dependent on the duration of their blooming. Therefore one universal property that should be an outcome of genetic modifications is long blooming time. The rest will depend on the exact species used.
*Data table taken from this article.
Using members of Araceae:
Thermogenic species from this family are arguably the most suitable for realizing this idea, here's why:
  • Thermogenic arum lilies have rather big flowers and some (e.g. titan arum) exceptionally huge ones. Since inflorescence is the main heat-producing part of thermogenic plants, this means more heat produced by a single plant.
*Photo - flower size of the thermogenic Sauromatum venosum.
  • The morphology of the flowers of arum lilies makes them convenient environment heaters - slim appendices of many arum lilies work as heat transducers, they warm up the air in their immediate environment through convection. This creates a microclimate around them with an upward circulation of air.
  • Salicylic acid is a substance (calorigen) responsible for the metabolic flare-up of thermogenic arum lilies. External application of small (microgram range) amounts of it to flowers of these plants jump-starts their thermogenic activity. This could be used as a heat switch in domestic settings - spray the plant with a weak salicylic acid solution.
  • Phenotype features of some non-thermogenic Araceae members are convenient for transgenic modifications of their thermogenic "relatives" - odorless flowers , long blooming time .
  • They are often cultivated for ornamental purposes.
  • One species in the family - skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) is capable of raising its temperature up to 30 degrees Celsius above the ambient temperature. The plant can melt its way through frozen ground, snow, and even ice in spring (cover photo). Prolong its blooming/heat generation time through genetic engineering (it can already maintain the temperature for up to several days), remove the bad smell, and enlarge its inflorescence - there you have the bio-heater.
The main disadvantage of turning thermogenic plants of this family into intentional bio-heaters is the usually disgusting smell of their flowers (the smell is used to attract carnivorous and saprotrophic pollinators, such as flies and beetles).
It seems that unpleasant plant odor removal through genetic engineering is not well-researched or technologically developed, but since it's an economically important field, efforts are being made. For example, the study summarised here focused on finding the genetic basis behind the odor of the allegedly world's stinkiest fruit, Durian, with productive results. Also, as mentioned above, some members of the family have virtually odorless flowers, this seems convenient for transgenic engineering.
Thermogenic Araceae members usually have a short blooming time (one to few days), so it would have to be substantially prolonged.
Using members of other families:
Victoria cruziana (Nymphaceae) is a thermogenic water lily with beautiful and fragrant flowers. However, it's difficult to cultivate indoors since it's a water plant.
Thermogenic species of Cycadaceae, Arecaceae and Annonaceae. They are usually trees, shrubs, or abnormally large grasses. Pros: big reproductive structures or/and many of those on a single plant, many of them are useful as food plants. Cons: could be difficult to cultivate indoors due to their size, leaves and woody parts take the majority of the plant.
A reverse approach:
Instead of modifying the properties of already thermogenic plants, we might take the plant which lacks thermogenesis but has all the other, convenient properties and try to genetically engineer thermogenesis in it. The expression of specific genes is responsible for the thermogenesis of heat-producing plants . This may let to transfer those genes to non-thermogenic plants and make them produce heat.









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Some considerations

Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain Oct 23, 2022
This idea, in principle, is interesting. However, I think there are serious engineering problems regarding realising the idea into an actual solution. Here are a few points to think about:
  1. How many plants do we need to grow? This relates to the actual input Vs output problem. Is there any data on how much heat per unit of biomass is generated by these plants? How many plants would we need to grow so that we can raise the temperature of an enclosed area significantly?
  2. What exact physiological conditions do the plants need to be in? As you mentioned in the idea, blooming is the biological process that is related to the thermogenic property of these plants. Is it all? Or could there be more processes that might give off heat? Moreover, if we look into the possibility of using more than one species of plants within a given space, how do we guarantee and sync these processes to maximize the output? A closely maintained cycle of plant growth might be needed to do so, and for different species, the growth parameters might be different from each other. This can potentially be counterproductive.
  3. Is it energetically and economically feasible? Even if we can generate heat with the plants, when you factor in the total energy that goes into growing and maintaining these plants for the stated purposes, it would make no sense to use them if the total energy that goes in is higher than the total energy that goes out. Also, what about the tentative costs? If we can simply buy conventional energy in cheaper price than this plant based system, no one would be interested in this.
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Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain2 years ago
Povilas S Thanks for the responses. Given all other things, then the most important question seems to boil down to 'how' do we then achieve actual engineering to generate sustainably thermogenic plants that can actually work as heaters. Following are the traits that I would expect to introduce to any 'plant cum heater' system: - The actual cell-membrane and cell wall integrity mimicking the thermogenic plants (what kind of lipids? at what concentration?) - The modifications required in the cytoskeletal proteins to sustain the higher local temperature of the plant itself (microtubules, tubulins and other molecules that maintain the structural integrity of the cells need to be stable so as to drive the normal physiological process and also to facilitate cell division. We have to ensure the integrity is not compromised at the higher temperature) - The thermostability of other functional proteins (proteins, especially enzymes are greatly affected by the temperature in that the actual active domains for their catalytic activity might 'open' or 'close' - basically dictating their accessibility by other cellular components - in response to a temperature gradient, and we need to be able to find ways to maintain the natural order of enzymatic operations in elevated temperature)
-Stability of transient molecules like mRNA (RNA is a meta-stable molecule, and it has a much shorter half-life than DNA. How do these thermogenic plants protect their mRNA from degrading at the higher temperature?)
Heat-shock proteins (HSPs) are by far the most important drivers during heat stress in organisms. Not just in thermal (or other stresses) regulation, they are involved in trafficking and cargo-ing the proteins inside cells. Hence, a starting point to look into engineering for thermogenic plants would be to look for the most efficient HSPs that are present in naturally heat-producing plants. How HSPs function in these plants might give off important cues for the engineering we sought to do.


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Povilas S
Povilas S2 years ago
I'll reply to your 1st. paragraph first, cause I think it raises the most important questions.I’m not sure I’m getting the physics exactly right here, since it’s a bit confusing, but I did some digging, and here it goes.
Heat production in Watts from “Table 1” here – Amorphophallus titanium produces ~35 Watts, which means 35 Joules of heat energy per second, specific heat capacity of air is 0.718 kJ/kg, which means you need 718 Joules to raise 1 kg of air by one degree K (or Celsius). 1 cubic meter of air contains 1.222 kg of air, so to raise 1 cubic meter of air by one degree Celsius you need ~877 Joules of energy.
So the floral appendix of A. titanium will raise the temperature of one cubic meter of air by one degree in – 877/35 = 25 seconds. Let’s say you want to raise it by 20 degrees, it will then take 500 s. or 8.3 minutes. If we take a room that is 5x5x3 meters = 75 cubic meters of air, you’ll need 10.4 hours to heat a room of that size by 20 degrees by a single plant.
Now, in reality, this will almost certainly be less effective, due to the heat loss during convection and other factors. Also, I took perhaps the most energy-efficient thermogenic plant, which has the biggest unbranched flower on earth, its thermogenic part is only the tip of the spadix, but it weighs ~0.5 kg. Despite this, the results are still pretty impressive. If we take the second most energy-efficient plant from that table - Cycas revoluta, we’d need 56 hours to heat that room, or ~ 5 plants to reach the same efficiency as with single A.titanum. So it depends, but don’t forget that the idea relies on genetic engineering to make this work well.
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jnikola2 years ago
Maybe the answer to the last point is not so important since the idea got inspired by a session about ways of heating during the energy crisis. Also, even the most popular "green" energy producers - solar panels - are not economically feasible in most cases if you take into consideration the initial costs and the disadvantages.
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General comments

Shubhankar Kulkarni
Shubhankar Kulkarni2 years ago
Awesome! I like the fact that it is green energy. It won't impact the environment, atleast, irreversibly.
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