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DATE: June 2, 2004

Prof. John Thomas awarded grant to study safer cleanup of toxic waste

DEARBORN---John Thomas, associate professor of biology at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, received a grant from the Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research, Inc. (CPBR) to research a safer method of cleaning up toxic waste sites. The field work will be done near Ford's Rouge Plant.

Thomas received $63,301 for a two-year period, with Ford Motor Company awarding $20,592 in matching funds for the first year. An application for additional funds from Ford for a second year is under review.

Thomas will work in collaboration with Clayton Rugh, assistant professor of phytoremediation at Michigan State University, to screen a selection of native Michigan plants for effective phytoremediation of harmful environmental contaminants. Phytoremediation is the use of plants to extract harmful elements from soil for safe disposal, a desirable and effective alternative to costly and disruptive engineering approaches, such as excavation, landfilling and incineration, according to Thomas.

"We are working hand-in-hand with Ford Motor Company and CPBR to develop practical phytoremediation strategies to mitigate polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)," Thomas said.

"PAHs are produced from the burning of coal or diesel fuel and are water insoluble, very stable and of concern to the environment," he said. "Our approach is to grow select native Michigan plant species in former industrial soils to detoxify PAH contaminants into harmless natural products."

Many scientific studies have discovered PAH-metabolizing microbial strains, but the major problem with directly applying these microbes to PAH-laden soils is that the microbial populations decline rapidly in the field, Thomas said. Planted systems may promote the establishment of helpful microbial populations and sustain PAH-bioremediation by enriching the soils with plant-produced products, generally classified as plant root "exudates," he noted.

Unlike animal secretions, plant root exudates are not waste products, but rather the products of photosynthesis and metabolism including sugars, amino acids and secondary metabolites, Thomas said.

"Root exudates are thought to act as chemical signals for soil-borne bacteria," he said. "We believe that plants produce signals that favor some microbial communities while at the same time discouraging others. The resulting shift in microbial populations together with plant metabolism may be responsible for enhanced PAH metabolism and destruction during the phytoremediation process."

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