Plants with a mission to clean the earth and save lives

6/24/2014

Arsenic is one of the most abundant substances in the earth’s crust, and can be found everywhere in nature. It is also extremely poisonous to us humans, and long-term exposure can lead to many serious illnesses. Researchers in molecular biology at the University of Skövde have now developed an entirely new type of plant that can absorb and store arsenic – in its roots.

Every day, approximately 500 million people in South East Asia are exposed to arsenic, by drinking contaminated water or by consuming food harvested from fields contaminated with arsenic. In other parts of the world, including Sweden, arsenic contamination of the ground is a problem that generates significant concern. Long-term exposure to arsenic can lead to various skin diseases, different forms of cancer, diabetes, fertility problems, and impaired liver function.

'What is revolutionary about our research is that we have developed a plant that stores arsenic in its roots, making the edible parts of the plant completely safe for humans and human consumption in impoverished parts of the world,' says Noor Nahar, doctoral student in Molecular Biology at the University of Skövde.

The primary goal of the research is to eliminate or minimize the accumulation of arsenic in foodstuffs and our environment. Many regions of the world are so poisoned today that they require purification. The poisonous roots can then be sorted separately and the arsenic they contain can be used in industry, so that there is a purifying environmental cycle with a focus on sustainability.

'One could compare our findings in this research to the "golden rice" developed during the 1990s as a food aid project for children in Asia and Africa. Among other things, researchers added beta-carotene and iron to the rice in order to combat the blindness induced by vitamin A deficiency, which affected many children in poor regions,' says Abul Mandal, Professor in Molecular Biology at the University of Skövde.

Noor Nahar, who has just completed her dissertation in Molecular Biology, has conducted her research on a variety of tobacco plant with successful results. The next step is to extend the research to socio-economically important crops, such as rice and wheat. The research has been conducted at University of Skövde and funded by FORMAS and SIDA. Foodstuffs that are free from or with a substantially reduced amount of arsenic could contribute to the protection of millions of individuals around the world from food-based arsenic poisoning and its deadly consequences.

Noor Nahar, doctoral student in Molecular Biology at the University of Skövde

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