Army Addresses Munitions Waste with Transgenic Plants

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Researchers with the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center are poised to begin an experiment with plants designed to remediate soil-born munitions’ residues by converting them to new plant tissue.

Tim Cary, research agronomist with ERDC’s Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, will begin a program this month using transgenic switchgrass in a field experiment at a designated military installation.

Phytoremediation — using living plants to remove contaminants from soil — is one of the ways ERDC researchers are engineering with nature to help military installations address munitions contamination on ranges.

This program, as with all work involving transgenic plants, must go through a rigorous permitting process administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Biotechnology Regulatory Service.

The laboratory recently received the APHIS permit, allowing researchers to move approximately 5,000 plants to a remote site and test them under field conditions. The permit took almost 18 months to prepare and process, and Cary marks it as quite an accomplishment with it being the first of its kind for DOD.

“Currently, the experiment will be one growing season in 2016,” said Cary, “but could be extended depending on results.”

Handling of the plants will be strictly monitored, Cary said. For the duration of the field trial, all plants – transformed and non-transformed – will be considered regulated materials. The plants will be monitored bi-weekly until fall frost to eliminate flowering and prevent the transfer of genes to plants outside the experimental area.

“APHIS’s monitoring for escaped plants will continue for three years following conclusion of the release, so through 2019, if we end the experiment in October,” said Cary.

Monthly sampling will determine how effective the transgenic plants are in remediating the munitions contamination, as well as calculating removal rates.

The results of this program may be used as guidelines for the establishment and management of vegetation on military lands, and provide a significant advancement in methods for military range cleanup.

Article Credit: U.S. Army