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New Plants Being Developed That Eat Toxins and
Cleanse Polluted Soil ... But What are the Risks?

Nature is full of amazing things, like "extromphiles" that live in toxic waste sites and may hold the cure to cancer, and the 400,000 Mexican free-tail bats that live in Carlsbad Caverns (New Mexico) and eat several tons of bugs each night.


Plants can naturally remove toxins that industry leaves behind from our soil and water, but it can takes years -- even decades -- for them to be effective. With genetic engineering, researchers were able to create plants that could clean up waste 100 times faster -- but with unknown consequences.

Nature also produces plants that can naturally clean up contaminated soil and ground water in a process known as phytoremediation. Certain plants are able to withstand soil toxins such as heavy metals, and actually uptake them into their roots. The plants are able to breakdown the toxins into harmless byproducts that they either keep in their roots, stems and leaves or release into the air.

Cleansing soil that has been polluted by industry or accidents in this manner has shown promise since the early '90s. However, though effective, it's a relatively slow process (and it shuts down during the winter), which makes it impractical for many remediation sites -- which may be under deadlines imposed by federal regulators -- to use phytoremediation for cleanup.

In order to speed things up a bit, scientists have been working on tweaking plants to clean soil even more effectively (i.e. faster). And now they think they've done it.

Plants With Animal Genes

Researchers from the University of Washington have genetically engineered lab-grown poplar plants that show great promise for cleaning up trichloroethylene, an industrial degreaser that commonly contaminates groundwater.

The genetically modified (GM) plants took up as much as 91 percent of the trichloroethylene from a liquid solution, while unaltered plants took up just 3 percent. The GM poplars also broke down the toxin into harmless byproducts 100 times faster than unaltered versions.

On top of that, the GM plants were also found to uptake more of other environmental toxins, including:

  • Chloroform, a byproduct of disinfecting drinking water

  • Carbon tetrachloride, a solvent

  • Vinyl chloride, a plastics chemical

  • Benzene

"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," said Sharon Doty of the University of Washington, the study's lead author, in a National Geographic News article.

However, there's a catch. The researchers implanted the poplar plants with a gene from rabbits' livers that produces cytochrome P450 -- an enzyme that poplars use to metabolize contaminants.

While both plants (including poplars) and animals contain P450, it's not expressed naturally in poplars at the rate found with genetic modification.

The problem with using GM plants for remediation is that it's never been done before and the risks are unknown. Plants spread naturally in the wild, which means that GM genes could easily spread uncontrollably, with perhaps unseen, negative consequences.

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

In 2005, a similar controversy arose when Japanese researchers inserted a human liver gene into rice. The gene produces an enzyme, CYP2B6, which breaks down chemicals in the human body. The GM rice was intended to be resistant to herbicides and to breakdown other pollutants.

genetically modified foods

The USDA has given approval for a 3,000-plus acre crop of rice that contains human proteins to be grown in Kansas.

At the time, the anti-GM Institute of Science in Society expressed concerns that the enzyme could end up back in humans, where it could potentially trigger new viruses or cancers.

Taking things a step further, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has given preliminary approval to Ventria Bioscience, the producer of rice that contains human proteins found in breast milk and saliva, to plant the GM rice on more than 3,000 acres in Kansas.

The company is intending to market the rice as a treatment for diarrhea and stomach bugs, and put it in drinks, deserts, yogurts and muesli bars. It will be the first product to contain both human and plant genes.

While the idea of using GM plants to clean up contaminated soil has stirred plenty of controversy, using them directly in food has created even more.

While the USDA says the rice can be grown with "virtually no risk," others are not so sure.

Says Friends of the Earth campaigner Clare Oxborrow, "Using food crops and fields as glorified drug factories is a very worrying development. If these pharmaceutical crops end up on consumers' plates, the consequences for our health could be devastating."

Recommended Reading

Are Genetically Modified (GM) Foods Dangerous? The Essentials on Both Sides of the Debate

Codex: What Exactly is it and How Does it Impact Your Health Freedom?


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences October 16, 2007

The Daily Mail March 6, 2007

National Geographic News October 15, 2007

Eurek Alert October 15, 2007

Telegraph April 25, 2005

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