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Gene Modified pPlants May Aid Explosives Clean-up

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Genetically modified plants developed in the UK could be used to clean up US military testing grounds.

British scientists have given plants bacterial genes that allow them to thrive around TNT and RDX, toxic explosive compounds found in shells, bombs and missiles.

It allows the plants to decontaminate land polluted by left-over residues from test firing.

TNT and RDX in the soil are difficult to deal with because of their different properties, said lead researcher Dr Liz Rylott, from the University of York's Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP).

Speaking at the British Science Festival at the University of Bradford, she said: "TNT sticks to you, it's like Velcro. It sticks to the soil column and can remain there for decades, and it's also very toxic. RDX is like a chicken vindaloo; it goes straight through to the water system."

The plants have been engineered to extract nitrogen from RDX and withstand TNT toxicity, while rendering both compounds harmless. An initial trial showed that test plants could rid contaminated water of RDX within two to three hours.

So far the research has involved the weedy lab plant Arabidopsis, but scientists hope to transfer their technology to common grasses growing on the test ranges.

"We need plants that can withstand being run over by tanks and which can re-establish themselves after being blasted from the ground with explosives," said Dr Rylott.

Her team has been approached by the US Department of Defence to help clean up an estimated 16 million hectares of military land.

Dr Rylott thought there could be "loads" of sites contaminated by explosives in the UK, many dating back to the two world wars. She said the UK's Defence Science and Technology Laboratory had expressed interest in the research, but it was "much easier" to release genetically modified organisms in the US than the UK.