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Published on April 30th, 2010 | by Chris Milton


Poisoned Water : Tobacco Good, Biofuels Bad

April 30th, 2010 by  

A few years ago the whisper went around about cyanobacteria, saying that is was the next great biofuel.  Huge lakes of the stuff would be grown, harvested and then magically transformed into fuel to make our cars go broom-broom.

So various highly scientific people rolled up their sleeves and got to work fiddling around with the little critters.  Before too long they’d worked out that the whisper was right.  The US Department of Energy chucked wads of cash at the researchers and we now have petri dishes of gloop which secrete the all important biofuel through their skin like some kind of … oozy fuelly thing.  Yum yum.

However there is a problem with cyanobacteria or, to use its devil-spawn name, blue-green algae.  Many of its forms are toxic, producing fatal poisons which stick around in the water long after the algae itself has been removed.  The hows and whys of this aren’t fully understood, but thankfully it doesn’t seem to occur in the green scummy stuff in your pool in the back yard.

This is where the tobacco comes in.

Cyanobacteria in the wild has been linked to many forms of illness.  Several cases of human deaths have been recorded and farmers are routinely warned against letting their livestock drink from rivers and lakes because nutrient rich fertilizer runoff from their land can cause the algae to bloom to toxic levels.

This problem is reaching epic proportions with huge blooms dominating lakes as the algae feasts on regular farming and sewage inflows.  Domestic and wild animals around these lakes are dying and in some cases there have been outbreaks of disease as locals eat poisoned fish and meat.

Enter the tobacco plant.  Scientists at St George’s Medical School in the University of London, UK, have modified tobacco plants to secrete antibodies from their roots which bind onto the toxins the cyanobacteria produce, effectively rendering them harmless.

For this to be of real value the tobacco plants have to be grown with their roots immersed hydroponically in water.  Given that some of the largest lakes in the world are affected this doesn’t make the solution practical, but now that the technique has been learned it can be transferred to water living plants which then physically intermingle with the cyanobacteria.

After this has been accomplished the team want to take the research one step further and develop plants which will extract the toxins from the water and store them in their leaves.  The plants can then be harvested and the toxins destroyed.

So you end up with a curious tale of Biofuels : Bad ; Tobacco : Good.  Makes you wonder what will happen next .. Man walking on Mars… ?

Picture Credit: Harmful Bloom in Lake Atitlán, Guatemala from NASA Earth Observatory 


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About the Author

is a seasoned sustainability journalist focusing on business, finance and clean technology. His writing's been carried by a number of highly respected publishers, including The Guardian, The Washington Post and Scientific American. You can follow him on twitter as @britesprite, where he's one of Mashable's top green tweeters and Fast Company's CSR thought leaders. Alternatively you can follow him to the shops... but that would be boring.

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