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Centre for Novel Agricultural Products


Engineering plants for the phytoremediation of military training ranges
Funded by the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) of the US Department of Defense in collaboration with the University of Washington
Project Co-ordinator: Professor Neil Bruce
PDF Download: Sustainable Range Management of RDX and TNT by Phytoremediation with Engineered Plants 

The explosives RDX and TNT are widespread contaminants at military training ranges.  TNT and RDX, in common with most explosive compounds, are toxic, mutagenic and highly energetic, they have a serious impact on the environment, and threaten human health. These two explosives are widely used in combination and are frequently found as co-contaminants on military training ranges. RDX is of particular concern since it is highly mobile in surface run-off water and migrates rapidly through soils.

Plants are sessile organisms and have therefore had to evolve complex mechanisms to tackle a diverse range of toxic compounds that they might encounter. The plasticity of these metabolic pathways enables them to detoxify relatively recently produced novel synthetic compounds. Whilst the explosive TNT is a potent phytotoxin, plants are able to detoxify low levels of TNT. In an effort to determine how plant tolerance could be further improved, we are investigating the biochemistry and enzymology underlying the innate ability of plants to detoxify TNT. A more detailed understanding of the biochemical mechanism of TNT detoxification in plants will allow opportunities to select or breed robust plant phenotypes in a rational way for field applications.
We have also been addressing some of the limitations of phytoremediation by engineering bacterial genes into plants. Such genes were isolated from polluted soil and confer the ability to detoxify or degrade the explosives TNT and RDX. As a result of recent advances in our knowledge of the biochemistry underlying endogenous plant detoxification systems and the use of genetic engineering to combine bacterial explosives-detoxifying genes with the phytoremediatory benefits of plants, this technology is now poised for testing in the field and in a wider range of plants, such as poplar and perennial grasses.

Phytoremediation field contamination


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CNAP Director, Professor Neil Bruce

CNAP, Department of Biology, University of York, Wentworth Way, York YO10 5DD, UK