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Genetically Modified Trees Tackle Pollution

by on Oct.29, 2007, under Genetic Engineering

DNAScientists announced last week that they had created genetically modified trees able to remove high percentages of harmful, volatile hydrocarbons out of solution.

Sharon Doty, an assistant professor of forest resources at Washington University, presented a paper to the US National Academy of Sciences detailing the creation of genetically modified (GM) poplar plants. These plants have the ability to break down several known cancer causing pollutants, a process known as phytoremediation.

The poplar plants are able to take as much as 91 percent of trichloroethylene out of a liquid solution. Trichloroethylene is the most common contaminant at U.S. Superfund sites where it has leaked into ground water due improper disposal.

Normal poplar plants break down trichloroethylene into harmless salt. The GM version does this a lot faster. This is achieved this by the insertion of a rabbit gene into the plants. Doty said, “Using the mammalian gene is just a step toward the day when we better understand the poplar genes.” She eventually hopes to devise a way to use the plant’s own genes to achieve similar results.

Doty and her colleagues believe poplars address concerns that transgenic genes might escape to regular forests.

As explains:

Poplars are fast growing and can grow for several years without flowering, at which time they could be harvested to prevent seeds from generating. Branches of the hybrid poplar do not take root in soils when branches fall to the ground.

The researchers plan further experiments to look at what happens when the trees are grown in soil. They are still some way from full scale field tests. In their paper they note, “Commercial use of these trees requires federal regulatory approval and monitoring, and regulations are becoming increasingly strict for transgenic plants.” Said Doty, “Our ultimate goal is to provide a more rapid way to reduce the amount of carcinogens, one that is affordable so many sites can be treated.

The Work has been funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Science Foundation, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. Co-authors of the paper are from the UW, Oregon State University and Purdue University.

* Image licensed as Creative Commons, Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 by ynse on Flickr

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