Scientists have made a strange mutant using rabbit genes to create trees that “eat” environmental poisons—specifically many that are known to potentially cause cancer. The transgenic poplars created at the University of Washington are able to quickly neutralize toxins. These “super trees” suck up and destroy harmful chemicals from the air and water they come in contact with.
The scientists found that by adding a rabbit gene into poplar trees, the mutant trees become dramatically more efficient at eliminating at least a dozen kinds of pollutants commonly found on poisoned properties.
It is expected that these trees could prevent the need for digging up tons of soil or pumping out millions of gallons of water for treatment and disposal. They render a list of cancer-causing pollutants such benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), vinyl chloride, and chloroform completely non-toxic. The poplars could be and obvious benefit towards cleanup projects.
Even so, they raise a multitude of concerns. Some people are worried about transgenic organisms, in which a gene from one species is inserted into another. The most common concern is that mutant plants could spread, entering the food supply and possibly pose a threat to human health. Or they could interbreed with normal plants. At this point, no one can accurately predict all of the potential side effects of a new gene on it’s host and how it could possibly effect the environment.
When it comes to the pollution-consuming poplars, "it's really a question of trading some of the unknown risks of planting genetically modified trees with the positive environmental benefits," said Andrew Light, a UW professor of philosophy and public affairs. "This is a real dilemma for the environmental community."
In the UW project, a gene from a rabbit is added to the poplar's DNA. The gene contains the instructions for an enzyme that breaks down pollutants. A very similar enzyme naturally exists in the plant, but scientists have not been able to isolate the poplar's version in order to boost its production.
"It's a beautiful thing that a rabbit gene is perfectly readable by a plant. Look at how connected life is," said Sharon Doty, a professor with the UW's College of Forest Resources. She's the lead author of the poplar research published Monday in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"It's a beautiful thing," she said. "I don't think it's something to fear."
But others aren’t so sure if it’s a beautiful thing, or if it’s an abhorrent freak of nature.
"It's commendable to be thinking about finding ways to reverse some of the pollution that has been caused in the past, but in doing so we have to make sure we don't cause new problems at the same time," said Doug Gurian-Sherman, a Washington, D.C.-based senior scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"There are a lot of unknowns here," he said.
Non-edible transgenic plants have captured little public attention -- with the notable exception of the attack on the UW's Center for Urban Horticulture six years ago. A group of eco-terrorists firebombed the center in an effort to sabotage research on genetically modified poplar trees by a researcher who is not part of Doty's study.
Doty said researchers remain worried about the threat of attack, but hopes that people understand the eventual potential benefits of this kind of research. She is hopeful that some day her trees will sponging be sponging up toxic waste, making dangerous sites safe again. As a breast cancer survivor who lost her father to pancreatic cancer, she's worried about the pollution in our air and water.
"Something is clearly wrong with our environment if children are dying of cancer," Doty said. "That's a lot of the motivation for me. I've got to do something about this."
Posted by Rebecca Sato
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