CHICAGO: Scientists have figured out a way to trick plants into doing the dirty work of environmental cleanup, US and British researchers reported on Monday.
Researchers at the University of Washington have genetically altered poplar trees to pull toxins out of contaminated ground water, offering a cost-effective way of cleaning up environmental pollutants. A group of British experts, meanwhile, has developed genetically altered plants that can clean residues of military explosives from the environment.
"Our work is in the beginning stages, but it holds great promise," said Sharon Doty, an assistant professor of forest resources at the University of Washington. Doty's research is part of an emerging area of study known as phytoremediation, which aims to use trees, grasses and other plans to remove hazardous materials. "Phytoremediation is basically a solar-powered pollutant-removal system," said Doty. "It uses the plant's natural ability to extract chemicals from water, soil, and air," Doty said.
Using plants to do environmental cleanup is more than 10 times cheaper than other technologies. It is also less intrusive and more aesthetically pleasing, she said. Genetically modified poplar trees in Doty's lab sucked 91% of the toxin trichloroethylene from a liquid solution. Natural plants were only able to remove 3% of the toxin, which is the most common ground water contaminant in the US.
The genetically modified plants in the study were grown in vials and were just several inches tall. But these tiny plants were able to metabolize the pollutant into harmless byproducts 100 times faster than the natural plants.
Researchers at the University of York, meanwhile, devised genetically modified plants using genes from microbes that can degrade the explosive RDX, a potential cancer-causing agent.
To test their system, they introduced genes into Arabidopsis plants — the plant equivalent of lab rats. They found that the modified plants removed RDX from contaminated liquids and soil far faster than unaltered plants.
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