Genetically modified plant cleans soil

10 May 2021 | Muriel Cozier

The research could be the first successful example of a GM plant in-the-field being used to remove organic pollutants.

Today, 10 May 2021, marks the start of National Plant Health Week. Looking at three areas; why plant health matters, the threats plants face and plant health science, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is partnering with the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) bringing attention to how healthy plants benefit both the environment and people.

Highlighting how plants can clean up soil, researchers from the University of York have genetically modified switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) enabling it to remove residues from the explosive RDX, which are left behind on live-fire training ranges, munitions dumps and minefields.

Researchers modified the switchgrass by inserting two genes from bacteria which are able to break down RDX. Grown on RDX contaminated soil on a US military range, the plant was able to remove and RDX at rate of 27kg RDX per hectare, degrading the contaminant to non-detectable levels in the plant tissue. Publishing their work in Nature Biotechnology, the researchers noted that because of the scale of explosives pollution, particularly on military training ranges, there is considerable interest in developing plant-based sustainable remediation strategies.

The research team believe that their work represents the first successful example of a GM plant in-the-field removing organic pollutants which are resistant to environmental degradation.

RDX has been a major component of munitions since World War II, and its use resulted in widespread pollution of groundwater. In the US, RDX is designated a priority pollutant; with over 10 million hectares of military land contaminated with munitions components.
Commenting, Dr Liz Rylott from the Centre for Novel Agricultural Product at the University of York and study co-author said: ‘The removal of toxic RDX from training ranges is logistically challenging and there is currently a lack of cost effective and sustainable solutions.’ Professor Neil Bruce from the Department of Biology and Director of the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products added: ‘The recalcitrance of RDX to degradation in the environment, combined with its high mobility through soil and ground water, mean that plumes of toxic RDX continue to spread below these military sites, threatening drinking water supplies.’


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