“In today’s world, pollution is a big concern, but can plants help us to clean up contaminated land?”

Carleton University faculty and staff experts answer life’s perplexing questions. Susan Aitken, Assistant Professor of Biology, answers this month’s question:

“In today’s world, pollution is a big concern, but can plants help us to clean up contaminated land?”

Heavy metal contaminants resulting from industrial activity pollute water and soil, posing severe threats both to human health and the environment. Phytoremediation is a relatively new approach that involves the use of plants in the detoxification of contaminated soil. It is an environmentally-friendly and effective alternative to conventional remediation techniques. The high cost of conventional techniques, such as excavation and storage of contaminated soil as landfill, is a deterrent to the remediation of many contaminated sites. In contrast, the cost of phytoremediation is, on average, at least 100-fold less. Although research on phytoremediation is underway in many countries, the need for this technology is so urgent that increased research activity in this area is essential. Phytoremediation will provide an economical and environmentally-friendly tool for the mining and manufacturing sectors to clean contaminated sites.

Plants that are effective in the accumulation and storage of toxic heavy metals are referred to as hyperaccumulators. However, the large-scale use of many of these plants is not feasible, as most have never been adapted for agricultural cultivation, or are considered to be weed species. Fast-growing varieties of plants that are suitable for cultivation in specific climates and are able to hyperaccumulate heavy metals are required for the optimization of this technology as a tool to give contaminated sites a new lease on life. An improved understanding of how certain plant species are able to hyperaccumulate heavy metals is an essential prerequisite in the development of plant varieties designed for specific phytoremediation applications.

Sulfur compounds are known to be good chelators of metal ions, allowing them to sequester toxic ions, and likely play a role in their uptake by plants. For example, phytochelatins are metal-binding, sulfur-containing peptides that are produced by some plants in response to exposure to heavy metals, such as cadmium. Our research focuses on probing the distinctive genetic features of hyperaccumulators, in particular those related to sulfur metabolsim. Long term goals include the generation of plant varieties that are well suited to phytoremediation.

Do you have one of life’s perplexing questions? Need an answer? Email us, and we’ll track it down. Email: editor@carleton.ca

From – http://www.now.carleton.ca/2004-10/543.htm

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