Long after the shooting has stopped, radioactive dust particles dispersed by exploding, depleted uranium (DU) artillery and tank shells leave the contemporary battlefield a dangerous place--and there's been little hope of decontamination, until now.
Researchers from Scotland's University of Dundee have discovered that common backyard fungi may be the key to cleaning and reclaiming DU-contaminated soil in places like Iraq and Bosnia.
The team found that free-living and plant symbiotic (mycorrhizal) fungi can colonize DU metallic surfaces and geochemically transform them into uranyl phosphate minerals, stabilizing the uranium, reports a study published in the journal Current Biology.
"The fungal-produced minerals are capable of long-term uranium retention, so this may help prevent uptake of uranium by plants, animals, and microbes," said Professor Geoffrey Gadd, leader of Dundee's research team. "It might also prevent the spent uranium from leaching out from the soil," he said.
Although less radioactive, DU fallout has the same chemotoxicity as uranium-235 and poses threats to humans that include nerve damage, "kidney toxicity," and lung cancer. And it can hang around for decades.
Fungi cleanup would be very low-tech, Gadd told New Scientist. Just add moisture and nutrients to the soil, which helps the fungi to flourish.
"You can go to just about any soil, and you'd find fungi that would lock away uranium," he said. "You could literally pick them from your own back garden."