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E-M:/ Re: bio-teched mercury-eating trees

Enviro-Mich message from John Rebers <jrebers@nmu.edu>

Take both of the stories below with a grain of salt - I haven't checked the
original article yet, but I suspect it lost greatly in the translation to
the Vancouver Sun article. The changes described - rendering mercury and
radioisotopes harmless - are akin to changing lead into gold. It is
possible to change one element into another, but in general, this requires
some heavy-duty nuclear reactions, which are very costly. The
"mercury-eating trees" may be able to concentrate mercury from contaminated
soil, which would be useful. However, they would still contain mercury,
which is toxic and would require proper disposal.  The bacteria breaking
down the toxic nuclear waste may have been designed to deal with the "mixed
waste" problem - if you have radioisotopes in a toxic mixture of organic
chemicals, you have a real mess to deal with. Bacteria could break down
large toxic molecules to smaller, non-toxic ones. However, there is nothing
they could do to cause the radioactive material to decay faster than it
normally would, which is an intrinsic property (called the half-life) of
the isotope in question.

John Rebers
Department of Biology
Northern Michigan University

Message below snipped from original sent by Tom Cary

>> >Subject: bio-teched mercury-eating trees
>> >

>> >
>> >Trees genetically altered to `eat' toxins
>> >
>> >
>> >WASHINGTON -- Bacteria that make toxic mercury harmless and thrive in the
>> >presence of radioactive chemicals can be used to make ``designer''
>> >creatures that eat up pollution, researchers claimed Tuesday.
>> >
>> >Reports in the journal Nature Biotechnology describe a
>> >genetically-engineered tree that pulls mercury pollution out of the ground,
>> >and a bacteria that breaks down some of the nastiest radioactive
>> >pollutants. The tree has had genes from bacteria added that help it resist
>> >the toxic effects of mercury.
>> >
>> >``We have shown the ability of genetically-altered yellow poplar trees . .
>> >. to grow in the presence of normally toxic levels of ionic mercury,''
>> >wrote researchers at the University of Georgia.
>> >
>> >In the second report, University of Minnesota researchers said they created
>> >bacteria that can break down highly-radioactive nuclear waste. Like other
>> >bugs known to break down pollutants such as oil and radioactive waste, the
>> >researchers hope their genetically-engineered hybrid can help clean up some
>> >of the worse nuclear dumps.
>> >
>> >The Vancouver Sun
John Rebers
Department of Biology
1401 Presque Isle Avenues
Northern Michigan University
Marquette, MI  49855
906-227-1585 (office)
906-228-3617 (home)
906-227-1063 (FAX)
e-mail address: jrebers@nmu.edu

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