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Scientists Enlist the Help of the Common Fruit Fly to Help Decontaminate Land

New study suggests that a gene found in the common fruit fly can improve TNT removal from contaminated soil.

| 2 min read

New study suggests that a gene found in the common fruit fly can improve TNT removal from contaminated soil.

Millions (and millions) of hectares of land around the world have been contaminated as a result of military action, industrial production, and agriculture. Conventional remediation techniques are often only feasible in small areas, and can be expensive, as well as energy and labor intensive.

Further, conventional technologies often destroy a site’s microenvironment while ridding it of toxic metals, pesticides, solvents, gasoline or explosives. The sites are rendered “clean,” but unsuitable for most uses. Phytoremediation, however, is gaining acceptance as an alternative or complementary method to decontaminate sites when conventional technologies are not appropriate.

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Phytoremediation is a generic term that describes what has become a range of technologies that use the natural processes of living plants for in situ (in place) removal, degradation or containment of contaminants in soils, sediments, and water.

Now—thanks to genetic engineering—scientists are adding to the phytoremediation toolbox by enlisting the help of the common fruit fly.

According to a press release describing a study published in New Phytologist, a gene found in the common fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster, can be expressed in Arabidopsis, a member of the cabbage family, to improve TNT removal from contaminated soil.

The University of York also reported on the research, saying: “When scientists engineered the plants to express the glutathione transferase (DmGSTE6) gene found in fruit flies, they found that plants expressing the gene were more resistant to TNT and were better able to remove it from contaminated soil than wild-type plants without the gene. The fruit fly has an enzyme which attaches itself to the TNT molecule and is able to modify it and make it less toxic, not only to the plant itself, but the environment.”

One of the authors of the study, Professor Neil Bruce, from the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) in the University of York’s Department of Biology, said: “What is important about this transformation is that it converts TNT into a product that could be more amenable to being broken down in the environment.”

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Regarding the ongoing research, Professor Bruce added, “The next stage would be to demonstrate that the TNT molecules are more biodegradable, but also to put these genes into plant species that could be used in the environment to clean up these sites.”

If further experimentation is successful, the transgenic Arabidopsis will join a long list of other plants—including sunflowers, tobacco, corn, and mustard—at various stages of testing and deployment.

Ecologically friendly, solar-energy-driven site decontamination? Yes, please.

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