science fiction

Phytoremediation and beyond

Let me preface this with: Science fiction, for me, is the wild-eyed imagining of what comes next. What lies over the horizon? We can extrapolate from what we know now, into what is probable, or even slightly improbable, but still known-possible. Or we can just start throwing stuff out there, sometimes called handwavium or unobtanium… that’s the difference between Hard SF, and space opera. Space opera is just stories set in space, on other planets, in the light of distant stars, with no need to explain the science of how we got there, or how we’re surviving in that strange land. I usually write that, more interested in the tales of human nature that play out over and over as time unreels into the distant future (or, sometimes, the distant past as populated by another race… see Vulcan’s Kittens and it’s sequel which gets into even more detail). Clarke’s Law: technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.

Hard SF, on the other hand, is more interested in what we’ll be able to do with what we know now, only take a giant step forward. The problem with writing this, sometimes, is that it’s hard to stay ahead of the curve when the science is proceeding in leaps and bounds. Freeing the mind to see what’s coming? Well, this is how we got the internet, cell phones, and other gadgets that science fiction authors described long before they could possibly exist. Some of the fiction we regard now as antiquated was written not that long ago, and some of it inspired the scientists and engineers to create and imagine the reality we live in today. Me? I’ve got a robot vacuum cleaner. It’s not a big, bulky, humanoid maid, it’s a sleek little disc that has acquired googly eyes and a personality. Boris the DustBunny Slayer is a glutton for work, and a bit of a pain to persuade to go back to his dock and sleep when we don’t want him underfoot.

See, now, that’s my reality living with something that was science fiction when the Jetsons debuted in 1962, and my First Reader was 4 years old. And it’s on my mind – not Boris, but the extrapolation to something fictional from real science – when I’m reading journals and articles related to my work. Like the article I ran across on the phytoremediation of heavy metals with transgenic plants and microbial symbionts. Bioremediation also is being experimentally used to clean up excess herbicides, and other uses are also possible. Plants, microbes, and the war on pollution made my mind skip ahead to other possibilities. To give a thumbnail sketch: plants can and will take up minerals in their roots and rhizomes. This habit is being looked at as a way to clean pollutants out of soils, including toxic heavy metals like Cadmium, explosives, and organic compounds. It’s not easy to clean soil, and the current methods are expensive and labor-intensive. Using plants as they are is also slow, but cheap and relatively easy. However, we’re learning that by adding certain genes, we can tailor the plants, and more than that, their rhizobia (the microbiological community found in and around their root system) to speed up their uptake of certain minerals and compounds, and to allow them to absorb more of those. It’s being used in rice paddies in Asia to suck up cadmium. It’s being used to keep herbicides sprayed on farm fields from running off into the surrounding areas. It is being explored for use in finding and/or neutralizing land mines.

But what if….

We could ramp this up even more and grow nodules of metals on plant roots? What if we could harvest the plants and extract the heavy metals from them? What if, on a world where a certain metal was scarce, we could mine with plants and microbes? What if a plant escaped from lab conditions and was able to grow on, say… I don’t know. Vinyl? All the vinyl sidings in the Midwest suddenly were colonized with some weird plant growth. Or kudzu on steroids invades the cities and started digesting the steel? Or…

See, this is where science fiction gets fun. What can we do with this? What could possibly go wrong? What will go wrong… because you know it will.

(Header Image: “Strange Ship” art by Cedar Sanderson)

8 thoughts on “Phytoremediation and beyond

  1. Hmm. All kinds of interesting ideas there! And just the fact of home computers and cell phones, GPS, mini-drones, and on and on…unless someone has no imagination at all, they have to be amazed!

  2. I’ve always been struck by how sea squirts collect vanadium. Modified sea squirts could be the miners of the ocean.

  3. A series of oil spills leads DuPont to develop an organism that eats the complex hydrocarbon chains composing crude oil and excretes them as alcohol, carbon dioxide, and water.
    Carl, who had ONE JOB, which was to transport a flask of the organisms from the lab to the port of New Orleans, spills some of it in a gas station in Texarkana, where it contaminates the fuel supply and spreads across the continent and across the world. It eats all the gasoline and other fossil fuels it comes in contact with.
    Carl says he is sorry, but the real blame should go to his supervisor. Carl is SUCH a dork.

  4. and thousands of years from now, the fruits of the plants that were once used to clean up battlefield explosives will be thrown as grenades….

  5. You want to see something -really- cool?

    Some guys treated a fruit fly brain with metal fixative and sliced it into 7000 shavings, then imaged each shaving with an electron microscope. Like a CAT scan, only with electron microscopy. They then created a complete 3D model tracing every single synapse, neuron, capillary, etc. 21 million images.

    Complete nanoscale map of the brain of a fruit fly.

    Now imagine doing that with a human brain…

  6. And the thing is, it’s not even that much of an extension of what happens in nature all the time. It’s well known that living things concentrate various minerals. You can work out a multiplication factor for various critters, and from that you can estimate the quantity of these minerals in the environment. This is used to gauge the impact of radioactive spills in the ocean.

    I read once that bacteria might be responsible for gold nuggets. The bacteria concentrate the gold, and die off, leaving the gold. Maybe bacteria could be engineered to concentrate and “nuggetize” other materials. Bacteria have the advantage of being faster than plants, due to a shorter generation time.

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