9 September 2011

Sealed-in scientist relies on plants to breathe

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A British geoscientist has volunteered to spend 48 hours in an airtight chamber relying on the oxygen produced by plants to survive.
Sweet Corn

Sweet corn is among more than 150 specially selected plants that will help keep British geoscientist Iian Stewart alive inside an airtight chamber next week.

LONDON: A British geoscientist has volunteered to spend 48 hours in an airtight chamber relying entirely on the oxygen produced by plants to survive.

It resembles an experiment first tried by scientist Joseph Priestly in the 1770s, when he showed that a mouse could survive in an airtight chamber full of plants, but not in a sealed box without them.

Iain Stewart, a geoscience professor at the University of Plymouth in England, will share the 12 metre-square chamber with dozens of specially chosen plants on September 16 and 17, as well as a hammock, a laptop and an exercise bike.

“This experiment has never been done before with a human – it seems a fascinating challenge to see if plants really could keep a person alive,” Stewart said.

Light ensures steady oxygen

Specialist lights both inside and outside the clear perspex chamber will operate continuously, keeping the plants lit up and providing the plants with the energy needed for photosynthesis.

This is essential, as plants become heterotrophic at night, operating like humans do, using oxygen and producing carbon dioxide. It means Stewart will have to brave the bright lights to get some shuteye.

The levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide produced will be closely monitored and Stewart will be attached to medical sensors that will monitor his vital signs throughout the experiment.

Special plants chosen

The stunt will take place at the Eden Project, an environmental visitor attraction in Cornwall, southwest England, and will be filmed for a BBC documentary series.

Over the past few months, between 150 and 200 different plants – specially selected for speedy production of oxygen – have been grown in anticipation of the experiment.

Some of the plants include banana plants, sweet corn and a mixture of tropical herbs.

“Compared to something like wheat, these plants would have twice the uptake of carbon dioxide and twice the production rate of oxygen,” said Oula Ghannoum, a plant physiologist at the University of Western Sydney.

She said it’s unlikely to pose any serious risks, but that the time spent in the airtight chamber might have an intoxicating affect. “It will be interesting from a human physiology perspective,” commented Ghannoum, “and it also goes back to the discovery of photosynthesis.”

Lungs of the planet

According to the show producers, the goal of the experiment is to show the importance of plants to human survival on Earth.

“We often overlook the role of plants in sustaining life on Earth. We hope this will bring home to viewers in a compelling and revelatory way just how crucial they are to our existence,” said TV producer Andrew Thompson.

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