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Plants help clean up explosive-contaminated land

Plants help clean up explosive-contaminated land. Copyright: Neil Bruce, University of York

Field trials are underway using plants that have been engineered to help clean up land contaminated with explosives: a low-cost, sustainable alternative to current decontamination methods.

Data breakout

16 million hectares Estimated area of affected land according to US Defense Science Board; larger than the combined land area of England and Wales
$3.3M Most recent grant from US Department of Defense to develop the technology
2014 Year of commencement of trials by US military

The research, initially developed with funding from BBSRC and the Ministry of Defence, was carried out by Professor Neil Bruce at the University of York, winning him a Runner-Up position in BBSRC's Innovator of the Year 2014 competition.

Bruce and his team use genetic modification to combine characteristics of bacteria that can degrade or detoxify different types of explosives, with the greater mass and processing ability of plants. This results in pollution-biodegrading plants capable of extracting TNT and RDX – two of the most widely used explosives in munitions which are highly toxic and can cause genetic mutations - from soil and water.

"Because this is a sustainable, low maintenance and low cost process it has the potential to clean up large areas of land in military training ranges or industrial sites, while offering protection to nearby communities," says Bruce.

Since the initial BBSRC investment, the research has attracted multi-million dollar backing from the US Department of Defense. In addition, the US Defense Advanced Research Programs Agency has recognised the potential of this technique to develop a plant capable of removing methane, a major greenhouse gas, from the environment. If successful, potentially this technology could be transferred to any number of other pollutants, including pesticides.

Read the full impact evidence report:

Plants help clean up explosive-contaminated land (PDF 210KB)

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