Chris is a graduate student in Santa Barbara, California. He is one of the main authors at Organic Matter, which covers environmental topics, broadly defined. Organic Matter is a group blog, and is always on the lookout for potential contributors, especially since Chris’ studies prevent him from covering anywhere near the breadth of topics that he would like. Interested parties are encouraged to stop by at their leisure.
Everyone out there has probably heard talk of using trees to sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to mitigate global warming, but what about using them to sequester mercury, selenium, arsenic, or other toxic compounds? Genetic researchers the world over are harnessing the powerful nutrient uptake and storage capacity of trees to clean up industrial contamination in the same way that genetically modified bacteria have been used for 25 years to clean up oil spills.
The difference is that oil can be broken down to harmless constituents, whereas many toxic industrial pollutants cannot. Trees are ideal for the task of cleaning up these compounds since they simply store the toxins within their wood. This is happening right now in Danbury, Connecticut, where 45 Eastern cottonwoods (Populus deltoides) were recently planted to pull mercury out of soil contaminated by decades of leatherworking waste (animal pelts were historically softened by soaking in mercury baths).
Some of the mercury is expected to vaporize into the air while most is stored in the tree. After several years of growth, the trees will be cut down and incinerated.
…and suddenly the whole idea loses a lot of its appeal. Still, the particulate material from filtered smoke or blocks of ash can be stored in perpetuity with relative safety, leaving superfund and other once-thought-to-be permanently polluted sites clean. There’s also opposition from hard-line anti-GMO advocates to consider, but I’ve never been one to indulge in such black-and-white rhetoric.
“It’s not as sexy as trying to cure cancer or give you an erection,” Professor Richard Meagher said.
With sterility built into the genome of the trees (the concerns of the trepedacious pediatrician quoted in the article demonstrate a surprising misunderstanding of genetics) I’m inclined to suggest that this is one of the most benign (and possibly beneficial) cases of genetic modification of which I’ve heard.