Genetically Modified Plants Aid Toxic Clean Ups

Scientists have altered the genetic makeup of poplar trees to better absorb toxins.

An article that appeared last week in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing how researchers have developed genetically modified plants that can absorb large amounts of man-made toxic pollutants, could have a profound impact on the way land managers deal with contaminated industrial sites in the U.S. and beyond.

At the University of Washington in Seattle, researchers successfully modified the genetic constitution of poplar trees so that stands of the trees were able to absorb 91 percent of the toxin trichloroethylene from a liquid solution and break it down into harmless byproducts. Natural poplar trees and other plants can only absorb as much as three percent of the toxin, the most common groundwater contaminant in the U.S. Besides taking on more of the pollutants, the genetically modified plants were able to process them 100 times faster than their natural counterparts.

"Our work is in the beginning stages, but it holds great promise," says Sharon Doty, lead researcher on the project for the University of Washington’s forestry school. She adds that phytoremediation—the name scientists have given to the practice of using trees, grasses and other plants to remove hazardous materials—is "basically a solar-powered pollutant-removal system" that is 10 times cheaper than other technologies while being less intrusive and more aesthetically pleasing.

But despite the promise of faster and more complete toxic remediation, most environmentalists remain unconvinced that the benefits of genetic modification outweigh the risks. Introducing genetically modified species into the wild could lead to unintended consequences, with ripple effects throughout entire ecosystems and regions. Doty says her lab’s research will probably be applied sparingly on carefully monitored government clean-up sites subject to regulation under 1980’s omnibus Superfund law, which calls for the remediation of intensively polluted industrial sites across the U.S. She is pleased to have played a part in developing "a faster, less-expensive method to remove carcinogenic pollutants from the environment so they will no longer be ignored."

Source: Planet Ark