A grass commonly used to control soil erosion has been genetically modified to successfully remove toxic chemicals left in the soil by munitions dangerous to human health, new research has found.
The study – led by the University of York – shows that genetically modified switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) can detoxify the residue of military explosive, RDX, left on live-fire training ranges, ammunition dumps and minefields.
RDX has been a major component of ammunition since WWII which is still widely used on military training grounds. This use has now resulted in widespread pollution of groundwater.
The researchers generated the plants by inserting two genes from bacteria capable of breaking down RDX. The plants were then grown in RDX contaminated soil at a US military site. The genetically engineered weed grew well and was successful in breaking down RDX to undetectable levels in their plant tissues.
The study’s authors, Professor Neil Bruce of the Department of Biology and director of the Center for New Agricultural Products (CNAP) and Dr Liz Rylott, also of CNAP, believe that this is the first successful example of use of a GM plant in the field. to remove organic pollutants, which resist environmental degradation.
Dr Rylott said: “Removing toxic RDX from training grounds is a logistical challenge and there is currently a lack of cost-effective and sustainable solutions.
“Our research demonstrates how the expression, in switchgrass, of two bacterial genes that have evolved specifically to degrade RDX gives plants the ability to clear and metabolize RDX in the field at concentrations relevant to the fields of. real military shooting.
“We have shown that by inserting these genes into switchgrass then the plant has the ability to degrade RDX to levels not detectable in plant tissue.”
The study confirmed that the plants were able to remove and degrade RDX at a rate of 27 kg RDX per hectare. RDX is identified as a priority pollutant by the US Environmental Protection Agency and is of significant and growing public concern. In the United States, more than 10 million hectares of military land are contaminated with ammunition components, of which RDX is a major component.
Professor Bruce added: “RDX’s resistance to degradation in the environment, combined with its high mobility in soil and groundwater, means that toxic RDX plumes continue to spread beneath these military sites, threatening l ‘drinking water supply. “
The paper gives an example when in 1997, plumes of RDX pollution were discovered in both groundwater and in the aquifer under the training field of the Massachusetts Military Reserve on Cape Cod. The aquifer is the only source of drinking water for half a million people and has led the Environmental Protection Agency to prevent the use of all live ammunition during training at this site.
The study indicates that the continued demand for large quantities of military explosives means that RDX will continue to be manufactured and used globally on a large scale for the foreseeable future.
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