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The diets of some plants would kill just about any other organism. These plants absorb large amounts of heavy metals, which are usually fatal in small doses. Known as 'hyperaccumulators,' the plants could in theory be used to clean up contaminated soil—a process called bioremediation.

Many metal-accumulating plants prefer nickel, while some absorb zinc or even cadmium. Alyssum lesbiacum, which has delicate yellow flowers and comes from the Greek island of Lesbos, accumulates large quantities of nickel. The metal is stored above ground in the plant's leaves and shoots, which could be harvested and removed.

Unfortunately, most hyperaccumulators are rare and grow slowly. Scientists are studying the genomes of plants like A. lesbiacum in order to develop transgenic versions that could store more toxins and grow faster than their natural counterparts.

The surface of a leaf of A. lesbiacum.
An A. lesbiacum leaf incubated with a nickel-specific indicator.

Birgit Reinert

 
Clemens, S., Palmgren, M.G. & U. Krämer. A long way ahead: Understanding and engineering plant metal accumulation. Trends Plant Sci 7, 309-315 (2002).
 

 

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