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New Technique to Detect Chemical Warfare Agents Using Plants

21 May 2014

Press Office

UCLan works with Defence Science and Technology Laboratory on ground-breaking research project  

The humble white mustard plant can help the global fight against the use of deadly nerve agents in conflict – thanks to a ground-breaking research project from The University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl).

Working together, UCLan and Dstl, a trading fund of the UK Ministry of Defence, have developed a new method to detect CWAs (Chemical Warfare Agents) in plants – including the deadly VX nerve agent whose chemical precursors are part of the Syrian declaration.

During investigations into the use of CWAs in Syria last year, the UN detected CWAs through soil analysis, highlighting the important requirement for improved detection methods for OP nerve agents.

The research of Dr Matthew Baker from UCLan’s School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences and Matthew Gravett and Dr Christopher Timperley of Dstl, has shown that plants grown on nerve agent contaminated soil can confirm the presence of VX when conventional soil analysis may not.
The white mustard plant was chosen because it is resilient and grows quickly - and survives around the world in most types of soil.

The research reveals that white mustard plants grown in soil contaminated with VX absorb the intact agent and degrade it to chemicals that indicate its prior presence in the environment up to 45 days after initial contact. Conventional soil analysis can fail to detect nerve agents after this time as extraction of them, and their degradation products, can prove to be difficult.
The project revealed that the mustard plant is not only better at detecting previously undetectable levels of VX agent in soil, but can also help remove it from the ground.

By helping to deter the usage of VX, the study supports the British National Security Strategy and goals of the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize-winning Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

"By using white mustard plants to search for nerve agent residues, the OPCW and CWC Member States will be better equipped to confirm their presence in future"

Dr Matthew Baker from the School of Forensic and Investigative Sciences said:

“By using white mustard plants to search for nerve agent residues, the OPCW and CWC Member States will be better equipped to confirm their presence in future. Currently, the detection of CWAs relies on extraction of signature chemicals from soil, which is sometimes problematic. The discovery that white mustard plants can successfully absorb the agent from the ground offers a simple but innovative solution to remediate soil contaminated by VX.”

Matthew Gravett, a senior analytical chemist from Dstl, said:

“This study demonstrates the important role plants play in detecting and storing evidence of CWA use. The robust data and analytical methods detailed in this study are essential for utilising plants to identify and confirm nerve agent use either as a result of terrorism or conflict; this work supports the UK National Security Strategy. The simple extraction procedure combined with the storage of the nerve agent evidence by the plants, which shields it from environmental weathering, vastly improves the ability to discover nerve agent use, and also crucially deters the use of CWAs in future.”