UNC Biologists Co-Author Article in Prestigious Science Journal

Assistant Professor, Grad Student Work with NCAR on New Study that Confirms Plants Absorb Air Pollutants At Greater Rate than Previously Thought

University of Northern Colorado's Chhandak Basu and Brenda Thornton collaborated with colleagues from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the University of Arizona on a study of the role of plants in absorbing air pollutants.

An article on the multi-disciplinary project, led by NCAR scientist Thomas Karl, was published today in Science Express, the electronic edition of Science, which is known for articles written by Nobel Prize winners.

The work by Basu, assistant professor of Biological Sciences, and Thornton, a second-year graduate student, confirmed the model NCAR used in a global study, which found plants worldwide cleanse pollutants leading to formation of smog at a 36 percent greater rate than previously thought.

Thornton spent countless hours in the lab confirming gene expression patterns in environmentally stressed plants. These plants were stressed with pollutants, ozone and insects (mimicked with wounding). Stressed plants absorb air pollutants, known as oxygenated volatile organic compounds, at a faster rate — a side effect from what's known as atmospheric cleansing.

"The plants absorb and clean up the pollutants, but they get to a point where they need to detoxify, otherwise they will die, so they need to turn on the gene expression," Basu said. "It's almost like the way humans fight infections."

The next phase of Basu's involvement in future collaboration will be to study whether genetically modified plants that are already programmed with the ramped-up absorption gene turned on can be used as a natural way to clean up the environment, especially in heavily polluted areas. He's planning to submit proposals for grants to support the research.

Basu's research focuses on the molecular and genomic aspects of plant stress response due to environmental change. The ultimate goal of his research is the production of genetically engineered, stress-tolerant plants that can increase crop production and potentially ease world hunger and food crises, especially in developing countries.

His research also includes studying a tropical tree that produces a diesel-like fuel. He's working on transferring the genes that produce oleoresin in the copaiba tree to plant and algae with hopes of producing a model for a biodiesel alternative in automobiles.

Thornton earned her bachelor's degree cum laude in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She previously worked on plant and genetic research projects at St. Jude's Hospital and at the University of Arkansas.

More information: the NCAR Study