Monday, November 26, 2007

Rabbit genes create trees that eat poisons...

Super trees that suck up and destroy toxic chemicals from the air and water faster than regular trees are the latest creation by scientists at the University of Washington.

When the scientists stick a rabbit gene into poplar trees, the trees become dramatically better at eliminating a dozen kinds of pollutants commonly found on poisoned properties.

The trees could prevent the need for digging up tons of soil or pumping out millions of gallons of water for treatment and disposal. They naturally render a list of cancer-causing pollutants -- benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), vinyl chloride, chloroform -- non-toxic.

But while the poplars could benefit cleanup projects, they raise a multitude of ecological and ethical concerns.

Many people are worried about transgenic organisms, in which a gene from one species is inserted into another, whether it's corn that produces a pig vaccine or a soybean that makes its own pesticide. There are concerns that mutant plants could spread, entering the food supply and threatening human health. Or they could interbreed with normal plants, transferring herbicide resistance to weeds, for example. No one can predict all of the potential side effects of a new gene on the host plant or other plants and animals.

When it comes to the pollution-consuming poplars, "it's really a question of trading some of the unknown risks of planting genetically modified trees with the positive environmental benefits," said Andrew Light, a UW professor of philosophy and public affairs. "This is a real dilemma for the environmental community."

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