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UGA researchers use transgenic trees to help clean up toxic waste site

Can genetically engineered cottonwood trees clean up a site contaminated with toxic mercury? A team of researchers from the University of Georgia - in the first such field test ever done with trees - is about to find out.

The results could make clearer the future of phytoremediation - a technique of using trees, grasses and other plants to remove hazardous materials from the soil. UGA scientists and city officials in Danbury, Conn., planted on July 16 some 60 cottonwoods with a special gene at the site of a 19th-century hat factory in that northeastern city.

"We hope to see a significant difference in the levels of mercury in the soil within 18 months, perhaps as much as a twofold reduction," said Richard Meagher, professor of genetics at UGA.

The field test is a collaboration between UGA, Western Connecticut State University, Applied PhytoGenetics, Inc., of Athens and the City of Danbury.

While the technology now being used in Danbury does not apply to all sites, mercury pollution is a pervasive problem in Georgia as it is elsewhere. The site of a former chemical factory near Brunswick, for example, is polluted with mercury and other toxic chemicals. Mercury contamination has been reported around the sites of former gold mines in north Georgia, and advisories have been issued during the past decade for mercury-contaminated fish in more than 80 streams, lakes and creeks in the state.

Meagher's team did the first-ever field trial of a genetically engineered plant to sequester mercury when it grew transgenic tobacco in a New Jersey field trial in 2001, but this is the first such trial using trees, whose larger root systems and year-round life cycle makes them better candidates for long-term cleaning of polluted soil.

Phytoremediation is a relatively new field and one gaining international interest. A team of photographers working for National Geographic, for instance, recently spent considerable time wi
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Contact: Kim Carlyle
kcarlyle@uga.edu
706-583-0913
University of Georgia
10-Sep-2003


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