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Feature   |   Fall 2003


Creating a crop of plants that harvests environmental waste
Plants are used to clean up soil and water contamination at field sites around the nation.

Imagine driving past a field that glows with a fluorescent green light if pollutants from a nearby factory leak into the ground. Or planting a crop that’s harvested not as food, but for its ability to extract contaminants from the soil and store them in its shoots and leaves. Sound far-fetched? Perhaps, but a multi-disciplinary team of Purdue researchers, boosted by a $2 million grant from Indiana’s 21st Century Research and Technology Fund, is getting closer to making these and other innovative methods for cleaning up the environment a reality.

Plants that glow and crops that clean are just two of the many applications of research in phytoremediation, the use of plants to clean up hazardous compounds in the environment. Phytoremediation is a growing field of research at universities across the country. Recent advances in biotechnology and an interdisciplinary approach to the field position Purdue to shape the direction of phytoremediation research for years to come.

The grant will be used to develop Purdue’s Center for Phytoremediation Research and Development, the first center of its kind in the nation. The center will bring plant physiologists, molecular biologists, soil scientists, engineers and food scientists together in a collaborative effort to identify the genes responsible for key steps in phytoremediation and to develop a suite of plants to use in remediating different types of contaminants in environments around the world. This research holds the promise of not only cleaning up polluted soils but improving human health and carving out a unique economic niche for Indiana.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 217,000 sites in the United States await remediation, with clean-up costs upward of $187 billion. Contamination can come from any number of sources, including chemical and oil spills, leaks from underground fuel tanks, poorly managed waste containment facilities and even illegal dumping. The health risks associated with hazardous contamination include kidney and nervous system damage, birth defects, skin disorders and an increased likelihood of certain cancers. Clearly, hazardous contamination of soil, water and other resources is a serious problem that needs to be addressed.

“The only way we’re going to help solve such a complex problem is through teamwork, where we bring scientists with diverse expertise together to contribute to the solution,” says Randy Woodson, director of agricultural research programs. “This grant provides the funding necessary to establish and support the phytoremediation research team.”


© 2003 Purdue University School of Agriculture




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