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First-of-its-kind Experiment Uses Lab-bred Trees to Stop Pollution

The U.S. Forest Service is trying a “first-of-its-kind” experiment that involves specialized trees that may keep contaminants from leaching out of landfills.

A part of a larger project to see if plants can solve the issues of pollutants in the environment, this process involves lab-grown variations of poplar, willow, and conifer trees, which all have the unique ability to absorb pharmaceuticals and harmful toxins alike.

So far, the Forest Service has planted more than 15 sites in Wisconsin and Michigan with 22,000 trees total. For example, the Boundary Road Landfill that skirts lakes Michigan and Superior will demonstrate how many contaminants can be captured, in a process called phytoremediation.

Phytoremediation occurs when trees sequester chemicals, breaking them down into compounds, and rendering them into ample-sized particles that get released back into the air. In other cases, the contaminants can remain trapped in the wood and can either be repurposed or eaten by microorganisms in the roots.

“These phytoremediation systems are probably one of the most cost-effective approaches to prevent these pollutants from getting into the groundwater and surface water near the Great Lakes,” said Chung-Ho Lin, a forestry professor at the University of Missouri.

Ron Zalesny, a supervisory research plant geneticist for the Forest Service, believes that these “buffers” of trees will benefit the Great Lakes and beyond when mitigating contamination leaks from landfills.

“If you think about all of the impacts from anthropogenic activities throughout the world…these buffers have global relevance,” said Zalesny.

[Sources: Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; United States of Forest Service ]

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