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Researchers discover way to transport environmental arsenic to plant leaves in new clean-up strategy

Environmental arsenic pollution is a serious and growing environmental problem, especially on the Indian subcontinent. Researchers at the University of Georgia had, several years ago, used genetic techniques to create "arsenic-eating" plants that could be planted on polluted sites.

There was a problem, however. The arsenic sequestered from soil remained largely in the roots of the plant, making it difficult to harvest for safe disposal. Now, the research team, led by geneticist Richard Meagher, has discovered a way to move the arsenic from roots to shoots. The payoff could be a new and effective tool in cleaning up thousands of sites where arsenic presents serious dangers to human health.

The research was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). Other authors of the paper include Om Parkash Dhankher and Elizabeth McKinney from the department of genetics at UGA and Barry Rosen of Wayne State University.

"High levels of arsenic in soil and drinking water have been reported around the world," said Meagher, "but the situation is worst in India and Bangladesh, where around 400 million people are at risk of arsenic poisoning. Unfortunately, the high cost of using excavation and reburial at these sites makes these technologies unacceptable for cleaning up the vast areas of the planet that need arsenic remediation. As a result, the overwhelming majority of arsenic-contaminated sites are not being cleaned up."

The problem is vast. The World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that long-term exposure to arsenic could reach epidemic proportions, the PNAS paper reports. The WHO says a staggering 1 in 10 people in northern India and Bangladesh may ultimately die of diseases resulting from arsenic-related poisoning.

The new strategy is part of what researchers call phytoremediation--the cleaning of polluted soils through the use of plants that sequester poisons, make them less harmful, and which can th
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Contact: Kim Carlyle
kcarlyle@uga.edu
706-542-8083
University of Georgia
11-Apr-2006


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