Gene-Altered Plant, Tree Can Suck Up Toxins

October 15, 2007

Two types of genetically modified plants can remove toxic compounds from the environment, according to research by a pair of independent groups.

One group developed Arabidopsis plants—small plants related to cabbage and mustard—that can clean up soil contaminated with cyclonite, or RDX. The widely used explosive is highly toxic and carcinogenic.

The other team modified a poplar tree to soak up a host of cancer-causing compounds from soil, groundwater, and air.

The contaminants are then broken down into harmless compounds in a process called phytoremediation. (Related news: "Plants Perform 'Green Clean' of Toxic Sites" [September 24, 2004].)

"It is our hope that by developing trees that can remove carcinogens from the water and air in a fast and economical way, people will be more likely to use [the land] than abandon the property as too expensive to clean up," Sharon Doty, of the University of Washington, said in an email.

Doty is the lead author of a paper on the modified poplar tree that appears this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"There is more research left to be done before we reach that stage, but that is the ultimate goal."

But outside experts cautioned that the risks of using genetically engineered plants are unknown and require rigorous testing.

"I think we're playing to some extent a game of roulette here," said Doug Gurian-Sherman with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, D.C.

He noted that both Arabidopsis and poplars spread naturally in the wild, which heightens the risk of an engineered gene spreading unchecked.

"If they do [escape and] cause problems," he said, "we're pretty much going to be stuck with them."

Explosives Breakdown

Continued on Next Page >>


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