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How plants could protect against arsenic

Swiss researchers have helped identify two essential genes that control the accumulation and detoxification of arsenic in plant cells.

In a statement, they said that the results were a promising basis for reducing the build-up of the toxin in crops, such as rice, in regions of Asia, as well as for the clean-up of contaminated soils.

Arsenic is present in water in some regions of the world – through the sinking of tube wells or from mining - and can enter the food chain through plants. The pollutant is transported to plant cells and stored in compartments called vacuoles.

“By identifying the genes responsible for the vacuolar phytochelatin transport and storage, we have found the missing link that the scientific community searched for in the past 25 years,” said Enrico Martinoia, a professor in plant physiology at Zurich University and member of the National Centre of Competence in Research Plant Survival.

The discovery, fruit of collaboration between researchers from Switzerland, South Korea and the United States, is published in the PNAS journal this week.

The team hopes that controlling these genes could result in plants capable of preventing the transfer of arsenic from the roots to the leaves and grains, thus limiting the toxin’s entry into the food chain.

Scientists have also discovered a way to produce plants capable of accumulating a greater amount of toxic metals which could be used to clean up contaminated soils. These plants would be then burned in blast furnaces to destroy the toxic elements.

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