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Genetically Modified Plant can help clear TNT from soil

by Coffee Table Science
TNT explosion image credit: giphy.com

As a species, humans hardly grasp the ramifications of their actions. Whether it be the rapid climate change or the shattering effects of war. Even though we realise that we are the main culprits in both these cases, under no circumstances do our actions look like we are on the course of correction. The snail’s pace of climate talks or our outright refusal to contribute to dialogue and engage in wars instead are proof enough to show that left to politicians, sooner or later our Earth’s environment will soon turn hostile for our own survival and bring our end nearer. 

Plants, on the other hand, are entirely different. Slow yet sure in their approach, these silent beings are always trying to maintain the balance that is being disturbed, thanks to human activities. Since the beginning of our civilization, plants have always provided for us, whether in the form of naturally available fruits or planned growth of crops as our ancestors turned agrarian. As we are also aware, plants have also been the suppliers of valuable oxygen for millions of years, something that keeps us alive every single day. But as our habits changed and we started using fossil fuels, plants quickly adapted to that as well and continued to clean up the air of volatile organic compounds. Studies such as the one done by Thomas Karl and colleagues at National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) showed that plants absorb up to 40% these volatile organic compounds (pollutants) and even increase their intake, if the environmental stress is higher. 

Their behaviour in presence of other pollutants such as TNT (2,4,6 – Trinitrotoluene) is unbelievable. TNT is an explosive compound and heavily used in explosives to cause maximum damage. Areas affected with war often turn barren because of the heavy dosage of TNT that is left behind in the soil. When TNT is taken up by the plant, it enters the mitochondria (the power house of the cell) and reacts with atmospheric oxygen to form a reactive superoxide that damages plant cells and restricts their growth. Yet, plants do not give and continue to uptake TNT and break it into substances that they can use.

Researcher Emily Johnston and her team at the University of York, recently studied the reaction in the mitochondria that leads to the formation of the superoxide. Their study found that MDHAR6, short for monodehydroascorbate reductase 6, enzyme is essential for formation of the superoxide and causes damage to the plants. Johnston and her colleagues went a step ahead and created a plant with a mutant MDHAR6 gene so that the enzyme created is faulty and does not react with TNT. Since the superoxide is not formed, plants continue to grow normally, even in the presence of TNT and slowly work towards clearing the contaminated land of explosive compounds.

Mutant Plants growing in soil containing TNT. Image credit: www.futurity.org
Researcher Emily Johnston and her team at University of York have created a genetically modified plant that can grow in soil containing explosives like TNT

Another exciting outcome of this research is the potential to develop new herbicides for use on farm lands. Since, we now know how compounds like TNT can stall vegetative growth, we can experiment with various compounds that can potentially be used to control growth of weeds on farmlands. The study was published in the Science Magazine and is referenced below for further reading.

This finding is also important in the wake of rising resistance to everything that is genetically modified. Asking for a blanket ban on everything genetically modified is not helping our growth. Instead, we must consider each modification on a case to case basis and outweigh the pro and cons before deciding to support or oppose the use of the technology.

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Karl T, Harley P, Emmons L, Thornton B, Guenther A, Basu C, Turnipseed A, & Jardine K (2010). Efficient atmospheric cleansing of oxidized organic trace gases by vegetation. Science (New York, N.Y.), 330 (6005), 816-9 PMID: 20966216

Johnston EJ, Rylott EL, Beynon E, Lorenz A, Chechik V, & Bruce NC (2015). Monodehydroascorbate reductase mediates TNT toxicity in plants. Science (New York, N.Y.), 349 (6252), 1072-5 PMID: 26339024

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