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UCLan chemist helps to detect dangerous nerve agents

13 November 2012

Lyndsey Boardman

Dr Baker and fellow researcher use mustard plants to identify toxic substances

A chemist from the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) and colleagues from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl), Porton Down, have discovered that plants can be used to detect potentially dangerous nerve agents.

Dr Matthew Baker, UCLan Senior Lecturer in Toxicology and Analytical Chemistry, and Dstl expert Matthew Gravett have found that toxic substances can be absorbed by mustard plants allowing the nerve agents to be extracted and analysed.

“This is an exciting discovery extending the window for analysis. The excellent partnership between UCLan and Dstl is providing important results that impact in the international arena.”

Nerve agents are extremely toxic substances banned by the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The CWC prohibits the development, production, acquisition, stockpiling, retention, transfer or use of chemical weapons.  The scientists found that certain plants, such as the common mustard plant, can absorb the nerve agent from contaminated soil which can then be extracted from the plant using ethanol.

Accurate identification of chemical warfare agents (CWAs) is an essential tool for verification of compliance to the CWC, but detection is often difficult as the chemicals can be absorbed by soil or washed away by groundwater.

The scientists found that vegetation can also act as a time capsule, where key markers of the nerve agents may remain in the plants for up to 28 days, allowing a longer time window for scientists to detect, analyse and identify CWAs.

“Chemical weapons are a very real and deadly threat. This work outlines a simple and elegant method for analysing evidence left behind by their use or manufacture.”

Dr Matthew Baker commented: “This is an exciting discovery extending the window for analysis. The excellent partnership between UCLan and Dstl is providing important results that impact in the international arena.”

Dstl’s Matthew Gravett said: “This research will improve our sampling and analysis capability and provide the UK and international scientific community with a more effective way of detecting chemical warfare agents.”

Hilary Hamnett, a toxicologist at Environmental Science and Research, New Zealand, praises the work and particularly its ease of use.  She said: “Chemical weapons are a very real and deadly threat.  This work outlines a simple and elegant method for analysing evidence left behind by their use or manufacture.”

The researchers are now looking to extend the test to longer times and looking at different soils. They also plan to investigate how the nerve agents interact with the plant’s enzymes, with the aim of using the plant’s uptake of nerve agents as a remediation technique.