Toxins from bombs and firefighting foams have been shown to leach into the air at military bases worldwide. However, a new species of grass might be able to help clear up the mess.
To combat water pollution at testing ranges, munitions dumps, and other military bases, researchers genetically engineered a special grass variety to absorb and trap RDX, a hazardous chemical often used in munitions.
Researchers detailed their engineering feat in a new paper, published Monday in the journal Nature Biotechnology.
Scientists choose a switchgrass variety that is often used to control soil erosion for the project. Researchers in the lab implanted a pair of genes from a bacteria genus thought to degrade RDX.
When grown in polluted soil, the transformed grass consumed and depleted the RDX to undetectable levels in plant tissues.
RDX, like many of the other troublesome chemical toxins, is resistant to natural decomposition. In other words, it persists and accumulates in the system.
According to scientists, this is one of the few times a genetically engineered seed has been used to degrade natural pollutants.
“The removal of the toxic RDX from training ranges is logistically challenging and there is currently a lack of cost-effective and sustainable solutions,” study co-author Liz Rylott, plant biotechnologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of York in Britain, said in a press release.
“Our research demonstrates how the expression, in switchgrass, of two bacterial genes that have evolved specifically to degrade RDX give the plants the ability to remove and metabolize RDX in the field at concentrations relevant to live fire military ranges,” Rylott said.
Tests showed the new grass variety can remove and degrade RDX at a rate of 27 kilograms per hectare, or 147 pounds per acre.
Environmental pollution from chemicals such as PDX and others is a big issue at US military bases.
Millions of acres have been polluted by PDX and the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS, as well as other hazardous chemicals to human health. The Pentagon has identified over 40,000 infected areas.
“The recalcitrance of RDX to degradation in the environment, combined with its high mobility through soil and groundwater, mean that plumes of toxic RDX continue to spread below these military sites, threatening drinking water supplies,” said lead study author Neil Bruce, a York professor and director of the Center for Novel Agricultural Products.