Maybe tobacco is actually good for something…

An article in National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/12/1207_TVplantTNT.html, check it out!) suggests that a specific modification of the tobacco plant has the ability to remove TNT from soil. Now I don’t know about you guys, but when I think of TNT all I can think about are Looney Tunes characters blowing the feathers off each other, but apparently traces of trinitrotoluene exist within our soils.

I was confused at first that an explosive could occupy our soils, but as I read on I learned that war times and military experiments have showered the earth with remnants of TNT and other waste products. The explosive is highly detrimental to both vegetation and animal life and has been proven to cause anemia, liver damage, and cancer in humans. Until recently the only successful means of contamination has been incineration, a very expensive process of burning the substance out of the soil that only results in useless ash and potentially toxic fumes released into the open air.

According to the article, written by Bijal P. Trivedi, “researchers in the United Kingdom genetically modified tobacco plants to carry a gene from a soil-dwelling bacterium, Enterobacter cloacae. The bacterial gene produces an enzyme that transforms molecules of TNT into another less harmful compound that becomes ‘locked’ in the plants.”

The research is merely a portion of a series of efforts to chemically alter vegetation for the use of detoxifying soils. This concept both intrigues and worries me, being that we constantly discuss the harmful effects of chemical additives in our crops. However I suppose if the experimental plants are ridding the earth of even more harmful substances, these chemicals aren’t so bad in comparison.

The research was led by professors of environmental science at the University of Cambridge. Susan Rosser, professor and co-author of the experimental findings, sings the praises of such work.

“Eventually we would like to put this gene into poplar trees, which have an extensive root system which can reach down into the water table in some areas,” said Rosser.

While such a process would indeed cost significantly less than the incineration process, logistical research has estimated that the planting and maintainance of such crops would still cost several million dollars per year.

This is a very interesting issue that I doubt many people know very much about. I definitely had never thought of the possibility of explosive material in everyday soil prior to reading this article, but I fear this is merely one more environmental issue that will undoubtedly take the proverbial back burner as economies throughout the world deal with economic deficiency.

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