An hour’s drive south of San Francisco, a stand of several hundred poplars grows in a Y-shape — a rather unusual sight wedged between two baseball fields. The trees were planted in 2013 to suck carcinogens out of a 1,500-acre Superfund site contaminated by the U.S. Navy, which disposed of toxic waste generated from developing military aircraft into ponds and landfills.
The Naval Air Station at Moffett Field is one of more than 1,000 Superfund sites in the U.S., the legacy of decades of industrial pollution. Cleanup of these sites is expensive, often owing to the specialized machinery and tools needed to excavate and dredge the land. And the moving of contaminated soil to landfills or the pumping and filtering of systems used to decontaminate water can themselves be disruptive to the environment.
But just by living and continuing to grow, the poplars, in Mountain View, Calif., can slurp up about 50 gallons of toxic water a day and break it down into innocuous byproducts such as carbon dioxide and chloride.
The poplars are part of a wave of advances in phytoremediation, the process of using plants to clean up toxic soil or water. They arise from work by Sharon Doty, a plant microbiologist at the University of Washington, who identified the microbes that naturally colonized poplars. She then licensed those strains of microbes to Intrinsyx Environmental, which gave the poplars in Mountain View a boost to enable the trees to survive and even thrive in a toxic landscape.
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