Clayton Rugh, an assistant professor of crop and soil sciences, explains that phytoremediation using plants to remove contaminants from the soil is evolving.
In the early stages of this technology, plants were used like sponges, soaking up toxic substances so they can be safely discarded. The next step, Rugh says, is plants that act like a green Mr. Clean, with roots that make detergents to break down toxins.
"What we're looking at now are kind of 'Mop & Glo' plants," Rugh said. "These plants make detergents that secrete into the soil, making the plant a kind of site custodian."
Rugh spoke today at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting at a session entitled "Phytoremediation: New Solutions to Pollution on Land and in the Sea."
Rugh is collaborating with colleagues at the Institute of Genetics and Cytology at Minsk, Belarus; the University of York in England; and the Sainsbury Laboratory at Norwich Research Park, U.K., to work on strategies to have plants produce biological detergent compounds called biosurfactants that target the thorny environmental problems of hydrophobic pollutants.
Hydrophobic pollutants present some of the most difficult remediation challenges. These are chemicals like PCBs, pesticides and dioxins that cling tightly to soil. They plague the environment because they are persistent, dangerous in small concentrations, and yet are hard to remove. They usually require large-scale, expensive dredging or aggressive chemical or thermal treatments. Hydrophobic which means water insoluble pollutants have resisted early attempts at phytoremediation because plants can't readily absorb them.
Rugh and colleagues are having success with genetic engineering to create plants that get to the root of the problem literally. Th
Contact: Clayton Rugh
Michigan State University