When I first skimmed through the article about trees being injected with rabbit liver genes to clean up toxic waste, I thought, "News of the Weird." But when I slowed down and read it in detail, my thoughts changed to, "Now that is cool."
Published in Scientific American on October 15th, the report is that a French hybrid of an aspen tree has been proven to clean trichloroethylene (TCE) from groundwater. TCE is a carcinogen and is the most commonly found contaminant in U.S. toxic waste sites. It's in insecticides and fungicides as well as dyes, spot removers, adhesives and paints and is very likely in the water that I drink.
Like many of our friends and neighbors here in the rural midwest, we have our own well that provides our drinking water. The water goes through a sophisticated filtering system that's contained in our basement. We have it mainly because of the high sulfur content our water has and it does a pretty good job of removing that, although it doesn't take it all out. It also removes many impurities, but I honestly don't know if it takes care of anything like TCE. We were more concerned about the sulfur because of the smell and the corrosive damage it does to pipes, electrical wiring, and appliances, and we just try not to think about things like carcinogens that might be in that water. It's always been a concern in the back of our minds though.
Our bodies remove such toxins, but many times at the expense of our livers. So scientists, knowing that plants inherently help clean the air and water, figured out a way to boost that natural cleansing ability by introducing genetic material from rabbits into aspen and poplar trees. Tests proved they removed up to 91 per cent of TCE and it removed ten times the amount of benzene (another carcinogen) from the air as 'normal' aspens.
The studies involving the use of poplars in phytoremediation (restoring balance to a polluted environment using plants) have been conducted for over ten years. One of the things still left to be determined is the effect these altered poplars have on insects, birds, and other animals that may eat them.
Information gleaned from Scientific American and Environmental Health Perspectives.
Photos from (1) Wikimedia and (2) University of Washington.