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Scientists 'beef up' plant-dwelling bacteria to boost phytoremediation

UPTON, NY -- Using plants to soak up and degrade environmental pollutants, a strategy known as phytoremediation, can be more successful in theory than in practice -- the accumulated pollutants or their metabolites sometimes kill the plants or evaporate via the leaves back into the atmosphere. But scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory and their collaborators in Belgium think they've found a way to improve the process: transfer genes from pollutant-degrading bacteria into bacteria residing in the plants. They describe their proof-of-principle experiment, in which test plants inoculated with the "beefed-up" bacteria increased the degradation of toluene, in the May 2004 issue of Nature Biotechnology, available online April 11 (http://www.nature.com/biotech/).

"By introducing genes for the appropriate degradation pathways into natural plant-dwelling bacteria, known as endophytes, we should be able to tailor-make plants capable of cleaning up a variety of organic pollutants," said Brookhaven biologist Daniel (Niels) van der Lelie, one of the lead authors on the paper. He also envisions introducing pollutant-degrading pathways into bacteria that live in crop plants to reduce the residues of pesticides and herbicides that make their way into our food.

Van der Lelie maintains that the technique should win widespread acceptance because it uses only naturally occurring bacteria and natural gene-transfer methods.

The scientists started with a type of bacteria that naturally colonizes the roots and stems of their test plant, yellow lupine. They mixed these bacteria with a related soil-dwelling strain known to degrade toluene. This allowed the strains to share genetic material through a natural process known as bacterial conjugation.

They then selected for the endophytic bacterium that had acquired the capability to grow on toluene, and used this strain to in
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Contact: Karen McNulty Walsh
kmcnulty@bnl.gov
631-344-8350
DOE/Brookhaven National Laboratory
11-Apr-2004


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