“Beefed Up” Plant-Dwelling Bacteria Boost Phytoremediation
Brookhaven biologists and their collaborators in Belgium
think they’ve found a way to improve plants’ use in environmental
cleanup: transfer genes from pollutant-degrading bacteria into bacteria
residing in the plants so the resident bacteria can help the plants
break down the pollutants.
— Karen McNulty Walsh
Using plants to soak up and degrade environmental pollutants, a strategy known as phytoremediation, can be more successful in theory than in practice. The accumulated pollutants or their metabolites sometimes kill the plants or evaporate via the leaves back into the atmosphere. But scientists at Brookhaven Lab and their collaborators in Belgium think they’ve found a way to improve the process: transfer genes from pollutant-degrading bacteria into bacteria residing in the plants so the resident bacteria can help the plants break down the pollutants.
In a recent test study, plants inoculated with the “beefed-up” bacteria survived in toluene-contaminated soil and increased the degradation of the pollutant. The research, which was funded by the European Commission, the Ford Motor Company, and Brookhaven Lab, appeared in the May 2004 issue of the journal Nature Biotechnology.
“By introducing genes for the appropriate degradation pathways into natural plantdwelling bacteria, known as endophytes, we should be able to tailor-make plants capable of cleaning up a variety of organic pollutants,” said Brookhaven biologist Daniel (Niels) van der Lelie, one of the lead authors on the paper. He also envisions introducing pollutant-degrading pathways into bacteria that live in crop plants to reduce the residues of pesticides and herbicides that make their way into our food.
Van der Lelie maintains that the technique should win widespread acceptance because it uses only naturally occurring bacteria and natural gene-transfer methods.