Scientist to be sealed plant-filled “bell jar” at the Eden Project for BBC photosynthesis experiment

14 September 2011, 11.51 am

Scientist and television Presenter Professor Iain Stewart is to take part in a unique experiment to demonstrate the importance of plants to human survival.

As part of a major new BBC TWO documentary series called How Plants Made the World (working title) he will live inside a sealed, airtight chamber for 48 hours situated in the spectacular surroundings of the at the Eden Project in Cornwall. The chamber will be full of dozens of plants and Iain will be entirely dependent on the oxygen they produce to keep him alive.

The chamber is intended to be a powerful demonstration of how plants act as the lungs of planet Earth, providing all the oxygen that sustains us.

Visitors to the Rainforest Biome at the Eden Project on Friday September 16 and Saturday September 17 will be able to witness Iain Stewart living in the 30m3 custom-built clear Perspex chamber.

Among the plants, he will have a hammock to sleep in, a laptop to work on and a small chemical toilet. Temperature and humidity will be kept at an optimum level for the plants. Specialist lights will be placed both inside and outside the chamber to ensure the plants are continuously lit throughout the day and night, providing the energy for photosynthesis to take place.

Iain said: “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. I cannot think of a more powerful way of driving home to the viewer the importance of photosynthesis.”

The experiment has taken months of careful planning and a wide variety of experts have been involved in the preparation.

Iain will be attached to various medical sensors which record his vital signs. Specialist doctors from University College London’s Centre for Altitude Space and Extreme Environment Medicine and the Royal Free Hospital will be on site at all times and will be carrying out various tests on Iain to explore the effects of reduced oxygen.

The levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen inside the chamber are critical - they will be monitored closely and full safety procedures are in place if they drop too far.

Andrew Thompson, Series Producer, said: “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.”

Alistair Griffiths, the Eden Project's Horticultural Science Curator who has been working closely with the BBC on the experiment, said: "As we go about our daily lives we often take the thousands of plants around us for granted, especially with regards to the oxygen they produce so that we can breath.

“This experiment is a direct illustration that there would be no human life on earth without plants. This is why we need to be good stewards of the plants and the planet that sustains us. I am really excited about the outcome and the learnings that will be gained from this experiment."

The experiment echoes the experiment first tried by the pioneering scientist Joseph Priestly. In 1772 he showed that a mouse could survive in an airtight chamber full of plants yet could only live a short time in a box without them. It was an early demonstration of the importance of plants in creating the oxygen essential for life on earth.