Scientists engineer plants to eat toxic pollution

Tue, Sep 13, 2011, 01:00

WHEN BOMBS explode, not all of the toxic explosives are burned – some stay in the soil and others get into the water. Scientists from the University of York have now engineered plants that use this toxic pollution as food and clean up the ground as they go.

Cape Cod in the US has breast cancer levels 15 to 55 per cent higher than other states, a situation which researchers link to unburned explosives leaching into ground water there. York has joined with the University of Washington to come up with a way to clear the pollution.

Contamination is a big problem in military training grounds. The TNT explosive acts like velcro and sticks in the soil, says Dr Liz Rylott from the University of York. It can stay around for decades. The other problematic explosive is RDX, which quickly goes through the soil and ends up in the water table.

Plants cannot normally grow on soil contaminated by these explosives, but there is a type of bacterium that can.

Scientists identified which bits of the bacterium’s DNA allow it to live with the explosives and put these genes into a plant. Two parts from the bacterium were added to the plant; the first meant the plant could detoxify TNT and the second enabled it to use RDX as a food supply.