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Genetic modification of western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii) for the phytoremediation of RDX and TNT

  • Long Zhang
  • Elizabeth L. Rylott
  • Neil C. Bruce
  • Stuart E. StrandEmail author
Original Article


Main conclusion

Transgenic western wheatgrass degrades the explosive RDX and detoxifies TNT.

Contamination, from the explosives, hexahydro-1, 3, 5-trinitro-1, 3, 5-triazine (RDX), and 2, 4, 6-trinitrotoluene (TNT), especially on live-fire training ranges, threatens environmental and human health. Phytoremediation is an approach that could be used to clean-up explosive pollution, but it is hindered by inherently low in planta RDX degradation rates, and the high phytotoxicity of TNT. The bacterial genes, xplA and xplB, confer the ability to degrade RDX in plants, and a bacterial nitroreductase gene nfsI enhances the capacity of plants to withstand and detoxify TNT. While the previous studies have used model plant species to demonstrate the efficacy of this technology, trials using plant species able to thrive in the challenging environments found on military training ranges are now urgently needed. Perennial western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii) is a United States native species that is broadly distributed across North America, well-suited for phytoremediation, and used by the US military to re-vegetate military ranges. Here, we present the first report of the genetic transformation of western wheatgrass. Plant lines transformed with xplA, xplB, and nfsI removed significantly more RDX from hydroponic solutions and retained much lower, or undetectable, levels of RDX in their leaf tissues when compared to wild-type plants. Furthermore, these plants were also more resistant to TNT toxicity, and detoxified more TNT than wild-type plants. This is the first study to engineer a field-applicable grass species capable of both RDX degradation and TNT detoxification. Together, these findings present a promising biotechnological approach to sustainably contain, remove RDX and TNT from training range soil and prevent groundwater contamination.


Phytoremediation RDX TNT Western wheatgrass Transformation Monocot promoters Stacked genes 



The authors declare no conflict of interest. This work was funded by US DoD SERDP ER-1498 and ESTCP ER-201436. We thank Mr. Ryan Routsong for his work of maintaining the HPLC system and advice for preparing HPLC samples.

Supplementary material

425_2018_3057_MOESM1_ESM.docx (590 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 589 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Long Zhang
    • 1
  • Elizabeth L. Rylott
    • 2
  • Neil C. Bruce
    • 2
  • Stuart E. Strand
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Department of Civil and Environmental EngineeringUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Department of Biology, Centre for Novel Agricultural ProductsUniversity of YorkYorkUK

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