The Future Of (2022) s01e03 Episode Script

Houseplants

1
[jaunty music plays.]

[Jurnee Smollett.]

You're enjoying a beautiful day
in your skyscraper's garden,
sometime in the future.

But because Jerry in 34L
left a bucket of water out,
there are mosquitoes all over you.

Come on, Jerry.

It's no big deal,
your plants will help you.

They can zap those pests out of the way,
and if there's an unexpected rainstorm,
they'll shield you like an umbrella.

It can even provide you
with some much-needed light,
because years from now,
plants are going to be
an even bigger part of our lives.

They're going to be taking care of you.

[upbeat music plays.]

Our houseplants will be more
than just pretty decor
as they take on shapes,
sizes, and functions
we could have never dreamed of.

Imagine cascading canopies
of light throughout your home.

Instead of having
a fast-furniture economy,
you just grow your furniture
in your house.

Instead of storing your data in a cloud
that's powered by fossil fuels,
your data could be stored
in DNA in your houseplant.

[Smollett.]
Will our plants end up
taking over our lives?
Damn.
That's a good question.

[woman.]
I don't think that everybody is
going to be living inside a giant plant,
but I think it's gonna be an option.

[theme music plays.]

[Smollett.]
In many ways,
human civilization owes its progress
to plants.

[woman.]
We depend on plants completely,
and we always have been
really cued into them,
whether it was knowing
which kind of plants to harvest
or knowing which kind
of plants to breed and grow as crops.

[Smollett.]
And by the 19th century,
we started using them
in an entirely different way.

[Marris.]
In the Victorian era,
people got super into plants
and it kicked off this houseplant boom
that I don't think's ever really stopped.

[funky music plays.]

I keep houseplants
because they make me happy.

I think that's the bottom line.

And it's just a nice hobby, I dunno.

It's like a pretty low-key hobby to have,
for me.

Oh, gosh.
I wish I knew the names
of all the plants that I have.

I have eight pomegranate trees.

I have ten fig trees.

This is my favorite houseplant.

This is a begonia.

There's one that's quite bushy
and there's one that's
a sort of a fig tree getting taller.

A Pakistani mulberry tree,
which is actually my favorite.

I thought I'd killed it
and look how good it's doing now.

[music ends.]

[Smollett.]
Sales of houseplants
have surged the world over,
and the main customers?
Millennials.

The generation known for
delaying major life milestones,
like buying homes, getting married,
and having kids,
found a cheaper way to nurture something.

And unlike pets,
houseplants require less maintenance
and don't mind being left alone.

And best of all,
- they don't crap on the floor.

- [barks.]

But these conveniences
are just the tip of the iceberg.

We've just barely tapped the potential
of houseplants, honestly.

Like, even the word houseplants sounds
like such a little side thing, like,
"You've got your paperweights
and your houseplants,"
but I think houseplants are gonna be
functional parts of the household
in a different way in the future.

[Smollett.]
In fact, houseplants already
possess a lot of remarkable capabilities
that can fundamentally alter our lives.

It's only a matter
of harnessing that power.

[Marris.]
Plants communicate.

They listen, they respond.

They're really active.

Some plants can even hear.

There's a really cool study that shows
that if you play the sound
of a buzzing bee's wing,
some plants will increase
their production of nectar
so they have something
to offer the bee when it gets there.

But right now, a lot of times
when plants detect something
or hear something or feel something,
they'll respond, but we can't tell.

So, a key thing will be adjusting plants,
so that we too can get this information.

[Smollett.]
People have actually
been messing around with plants
for thousands of years.

Finding varieties that we liked
and then crossing them together
and picking our favorites
out of the offspring
You can select for longer stalks
or longer stems or more flowers
or different kinds of things.

That's been going on
since the dawn of agriculture.

[Smollett.]

And that's still going on today.

Meet Tyler Thrasher.

Hi.
I'm Tyler Thrasher.

I do jokingly refer to myself
as a mad botanist or mad scientist,
mostly because the things I make
seem to align with fantasy almost.

Things like crystallized insects
or hybridizing plants.

So, you are in my personal greenhouse
and this is where I grow
some of the world's weirdest,
most interesting succulents.

The first hybrid I ever made
is the Crassula Thrashula.

I crossed a plant
that had soft orange, pointy edges
with another plant
that had bumpy, dimply leaves
and smells like maple syrup.

Which yielded the perfect combination
of both.

And this one also smells like maple syrup.

My main motivation
with this is sheer curiosity.

I've been growing plants my whole life.

I grew up living in a greenhouse.

I've been around plants
and at some point you gotta wonder
what else is out there.

I thought, "It might not be
that hard to make a new plant.
"
And so I had two of them
flower at the same time.

I cross-pollinated them.

I got seed, and the first time
you make a brand new plant,
it's just like this adrenaline rush.

And so after that,
it just kind of became this goal.

How many new plants can I make?
And the only way I'm gonna get answers
is to get the flowers to
on my own accord.

[chuckles.]

[Smollett.]
Okay now,
it's not that type of show.

Today, we can also create new plants
with genetic engineering.

You can induce the mutations
or genetically modify the plant
on the cellular level.

[Smollett.]
With genetic modification,
we've been able to take genes from
one species and drop them into another,
endowing plants with new traits,
speeding up the modification process
and having more control over it.

But today, there's an even cheaper,
easier, and more accurate way
to alter a plant's genes.

It's a Nobel prize-winning
technology called
[all repeat.]
 CRISPR.

[Smollett.]
With CRISPR,
you can rewrite the genetic code itself.

You can get down
into the DNA of the plant.

You can look at
what genes are lying dormant,
which ones are active,
and essentially, you can kind of go in
and flip them on like a light switch.

[Smollett.]
And when it comes to plants,
all kinds of experiments
are already underway,
spearheaded by
synthetic biologists like Christina.

Ginkgo Bioworks is
a synthetic-biology company.

We program cells' DNA to make stuff.

And as creative director,
I work with people to tell stories
and help imagine what a positive future
of synthetic biology might look like.

[Smollett.]
Today, CRISPR is largely
the domain of experts in big labs,
but it's becoming
increasingly more accessible.

You can go online and learn
about CRISPR, how to use CRISPR.

I think it's gonna be
pretty common knowledge in a few decades.

[Smollett.]
With wider access,
the sky's the limit
for plant modifications,
and not just the plants outside.

Most of the genetic engineering
has been done on agriculture,
but if one wanted to go in
and modify houseplants, they could.

[Smollett.]
In a few years,
we'll truly understand
the power of
genetically engineering our plants,
and soon enough, your houseplants
could become your appliances.

[electronic music plays.]

[Smollett.]
The first step is
to change the way we look at nature.

Nature is a form of technology
we can learn from.

I think that
that's the best way to think about it.

Not that there's technology
and there's nature.

Ideally, the two can be in conversation.

[Smollett.]
What if instead of lamps
we had plants that could light up?
, dude! I love the idea of a world
of bioluminescent plants.

I'm gonna start with that.
I love it.

As a D&D nerd,
uh, it's very Avatar.
I love it.

These sort of bioluminescent creatures
and these plants and mushrooms
[Smollett.]
Tyler has explored
this possibility in his lab.

We don't have bioluminescent plants,
but maybe we can mock one up,
see what that
could look like in the future.

Instead of actually having
a bioluminescent plant,
we are making a synthetic one.

[Akbari.]
The way bioluminescence works
is scientists are taking genes
from other species
that can produce bioluminescence,
like certain jellyfish,
and they express them in plants.

[Marris.]
So now as our plants are growing,
they're going to actually produce light.

Imagine cascading canopies
of plants like this plant.

If this gave off light,
I mean you would have natural soft
ambient lighting throughout your home.

[Smollett.]

But these cool little experiments
will be just the beginning.

In fact, the possibilities are endless.

Imagine plants that could fit perfectly
into your house
and grow in the walls,
like a form of wallpaper.

[Thrasher.]
You can rotate your wall
into your home
and bring that greenery inside.

What does that do for your air quality,
for your quality of life to live amongst
nature like we have evolved to do?
[Smollett.]
Or furniture that grows.

Instead of having
a fast-furniture economy,
where we've bred trees
to grow extremely quickly
and then we hack them down
and move it all over the world,
turn them into flat-pack furniture,
and then you fail
to assemble it correctly,
and then you cry
[cries.]

We could have a fast-furniture enterprise,
where you just grow a really fast
futon frame in your house.

[Smollett.]
Growing furniture isn't new.

For over a century now,
enthusiasts have been trying
with varying degrees of success,
to bend trees to their will.

- [both cheer.]

- [Smollett.]
But with CRISPR,
you wouldn't need to coax a tree
into becoming a chair.

You'd simply program it into their genome
and these applications could go
from beautiful home-decor choices
to serious quality-of-life upgrades,
like fresher air.

Humans are not actually
very good naturally at knowing
when the air quality is bad.

Um, but plants could do that for us
and signal, "Hey, you might
want to run the additional air purifier.
"
And one way to do that
might be to change plants
so that they show a coloration change
or something like that
when they detect something.

Maybe your green wall will turn purple
when it's a little too smoky
and you need to put on the air filter.

[Smollett.]
But beyond simply improving
the quality of life,
the houseplants of the future
may become literally life-saving,
namely with pest control.

Think of that man-eating plant
from the Little Shop of Horrors.

Feed me, Krelborn! Feed me now!
- [gasps.]

- [Smollett.]
But for mosquitos.

Oh! Get away! Get away! Oh!
[Smollett.]
Sick of being eaten alive
in the middle of the summer,
or trying to track down
that annoying, high-pitched
- [buzzing.]

- in the middle of the night?
CRISPR could also help with that.

Mosquitoes feed on nectar.

So plants could be genetically engineered
to emit certain toxins to fend them off.

In fact, Omar and his lab at UC San Diego
are already working
on making that future a reality.

It's something with surprisingly
big public health implications.

In particular, we're working to develop
genetic control technologies
that can be used
to suppress mosquito populations
and prevent disease transmission.

[Smollett.]
Such plants could act like
a citronella candle in your backyard
or even help
with major global health problems.

[Akbari.]
Malaria, dengue fever,
chikungunya, West Nile virus,
things like that.

[Smollett.]
But before we get
too carried away,
there are some things
we need to be mindful of.

If sci-fi movies have taught us anything,
it's that messing with nature
can have unforeseen consequences.

[people scream.]

[Smollett.]
Some of these concerns
are very practical.

CRISPR at-home kits are already available.

And If people can do CRISPR experiments
on plants at home,
how are we going to control that?
Could someone make a houseplant poisonous
or even turn it into a bioweapon?
What if someone were
to genetically modify a plant
and they make the one trait
that dominates all other traits in nature
and then it gets out of the lab?
Is the plant gonna be horribly invasive?
Will it take over?
[Smollett.]
What if your favorite type
of plant went extinct or worse,
what if certain fruits
and vegetables suddenly struggled to grow?
It's important that we're careful
with how we tinker with our plants.

Because in the future, we'll take our new
plant technology out of the home
and start using it to transform, well
just about everything.

[electronic music plays.]

[Marris.]
In the future,
when we have houseplants
as technological assistants in our homes,
we're gonna wanna have them
networked in to each other.

These plants will all be talking
to each other through their roots.

If we grow them in the walls,
then they could all have
their roots connected inside the wall
and you could have plants on the inside
and on the outside of the house.

[Smollett.]
Imagine a world
where our streets aren't lined
with steel and concrete,
but something better.

Trees.
Trees could replace street lights
and provide cover from the elements.

[Marris.]

The trees are themselves streetlights.

And if it starts to rain,
they unfold and unfurl their leaves
to protect you from that rain.

And so you have this infrastructure
that is actually plant life.

[Smollett.]
And it could go beyond.

We could develop a whole new
symbiotic relationship with them.

[laughs.]

What if plants could finally help you
get a good night's sleep?
What if we could just cuddle up at night
and just sleep surrounded by plants?
And then, in the middle of the night,
if we had a nightmare and our oxytocin
stress hormone started to rise,
you know, the plants could detect that
and start releasing, you know,
the gentle smell of lavender
and then we could go right back to sleep.

I just like to imagine sort of being
cared for, while I'm sleeping, by plants.

[Smollett.]
The plants of the future
could become powerful pieces of technology
that improve our everyday lives.

[Agapakis.]
Instead of storing your data
in a cloud
that's powered by fossil fuel somewhere
far away on somebody else's computer,
what if your data was in fact like stored
in DNA in a seed in your houseplant?
[Smollett.]
Plant-based data storage
is something artists and inventors
are already experimenting with.

[Akbari.]
Given that we have the ability
to genetically modify plants,
you could genetically modify plants
to store data, that's definitely possible.

[Smollett.]

This would be environmentally friendly
and wouldn't require large server farms.

And because our data wouldn't be stored
on some crappy hard drive
or up in the cloud,
we might be able to keep this information
further from hackers
and closer to the heart.

There is a very aesthetic relationship
that you could have to that information,
that data, a very emotional one.

[Smollett.]
Picture a special
family heirloom where the plant
is genetically engineered
to grow a group of ingredients,
and it could also be used
to store a family cookbook.

So I would wanna put
all of my family recipes
in a plant and then,
the plants could read the recipes
and grow all the ingredients
that I need to make the recipes,
and just present them to me
when it's time to get cookin'.

That would be really awesome.
[laughs.]

[Smollett.]
A single plant could grow
squash, sage, onions, and garlic,
and pull up that soup recipe
your grandma gave you.

Or a loved one's favorite tree
could become a photo album
of all your moments together.

I think you can take it further.

Once you tap into that,
I don't know where you would stop.

[rhythmic music plays.]

[Smollett.]
All of that is to say,
in the far future,
technology won't need to replace nature.

Instead, it can help us reconnect with it.

[ethereal music plays.]

Imagine the future
that's "alive" rather than "on.
"
You might think, well,
asking a plant to do something
that it didn't evolve to do naturally
is kind of demanding of us humans,
um, but honestly,
we've done it for thousands of years.

[music continues.]

[Smollett.]
Living with plants
is a millennia-old ongoing experiment.

For most of that time,
we've managed to co-exist,
plants growing and thriving,
while also helping to feed and shelter us.

In the future, if we want
to protect the planet,
we'll have to invite nature
into our lives.

[Marris.]
The way to be good
to Mother Earth
is not to withdraw from nature,
but to have better relationships
with other species.

[Smollett.]
It'll all be thanks
to this simple beautiful organism.

Your houseplant.

This is my friend who's gotten so big.

Isn't that wild? Plants are cool.

[Thrasher.]
I identify with my plants
and we're all in this together.

If I'm not taking care of you,
I might not be taking care
of myself and vice versa.

Houseplants may seem like
something that you buy for your friend,
but I actually think that they're, like,
spiritually right near the center
of what it means to be human.

[theme music plays.]

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