Scientists have finally been unable to pinpoint the exact reason as to why TNT is so toxic for plants and hope to put this knowledge to use in tackling the problem caused by the most commonly used explosive at many sites across the world. TNT which been used as an explosive for more than a century now, is resist to being broken down by microbes and lingers in the soil for several decades.
TNT or trinitrotoluene is a class C carcinogen according to the EPA. Pollution caused by it can cause ailments like cataracts, hepatitis, and bone marrow cancer in animals.
“Explosives such as TNT are toxic not only to plants but also animals, microbes and aquatic life,” said biotechnology professor Neil Bruce of Britain’s University of York, who led the study in the journal Science.
“Large areas of land are now contaminated by explosives, and there is a pressing need to find low-cost sustainable solutions to containing these pollutants and ideally removing these pollutants from contaminated areas. Plants have the potential to do this if we can alleviate the toxicity issue.”
Present at all sites of explosion, TNT is a major pollutant which can devastate vegetation and even render the affected land barren.
“In the U.S., it is estimated there are about 10 million hectares (24 million acres) of military land contaminated with munitions constituents, many of which contain TNT,” University of York biologist Liz Rylott said.
However a team of biologists led by Emily Johnston and Elizabeth Rylott at the University of York in the U.K. have discovered a unique genetic mutation in a weed called Arabidopsis thaliana. The mutation in its MDHAR6 gene bolsters their immunity to TNT and allows them to soak up, digest and safely store the lethal pollutant away.
MDHAR6 mutant plants, report these researchers, have long roots and bushy leaves, as compared to other TNT exposed plants. They now hope to use this mutation to lead to a new herbicide which could help kill weeds not lucky enough to have it. Perhaps, it could also be bred into other plants like wild grasses which already grow abundantly on firing ranges.