The Poplar Field

Oct 16, 2007 5:13pm

Prof. Sharon Doty, an environmental scientist at the University of Washington, leads a team that has created a sort of super tree.  They take poplar trees, insert a gene from rabbits–and the result is a plant that soaks up and neutralizes a dozen different kinds of pollutants, many of them cancer-causing.  They published their findings in today’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; the abstract of the paper is HERE.  It’s quite a list: trichloroethylene, vinyl chloride, carbon tetrachloride, benzene, and chloroform, stuff you sometimes find in brownfields or superfund sites.  Planting some trees, and letting their roots do the cleanup work, is far better than digging up soil and trying to figure out what to do with it. On the other hand, what do you get when you cross a rabbit and a tree?  Maybe just an otherwise-normal tree that neutralizes pollutants, or maybe–well, maybe something with some hidden property that people won’t like when they find it. Lisa Stiffler of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has written a piece about this, which you can find HERE. She quotes Prof. Andrew Light, who works in environmental philosophy at the University: "it’s really a question of trading some of the unknown risks of planting genetically modified trees with the positive environmental benefits," says Light. "This is a real dilemma for the environmental community." Most of us would probably favor the known benefit (pollution-eating) over the unknowable risk (some kind of B-movie mutation)–but that’s easy to say because there have been studies suggesting we’re predisposed to favor the known over the unknown.  Let’s leave that part aside for now.  Thoughts welcome, as always.

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