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FEATURED ARTICLE…

PHYTOREMEDIATION:
A SUPERHERO TO RESCUE POISONED ENVIRONMENT
Lloyd Ongpauco Balinado
July 2014

‘Poison’, a substance that
through its chemical action
generally kills, injures, or im-
pairs organisms. But before it
usually reaches us, it first
causes harm to the environ-
ment. To save our lives is to
save our infected environ-
ment first. And to rescue the
environment, who are you
going to call? Yes! Phytore-
mediation, our poison buster!

Plant vascular tissues
Plants are made up of
various groups of cells in-
cluding vascular tissues
which are concerned mainly
with long-distance food and
water transport within the
plant body. These are made
up of xylem which conducts
water and minerals from
roots to leaves, and phloem
which transports sugars
throughout the plant.

How do plant vascular tis-
sues aid in environmental
clean-up?
Numerous human activi-
ties like dispersion of indus-
trial and urban wastes lead to
soil and water contamination.
This makes the environment
rich in unwanted toxic sub-
stances like heavy metals,
combustible sub-stances,
hazardous wastes, explosives
and petroleum products. Or-
ganic contaminants can easi-
ly be degraded by microor-
ganisms, but in the case of
heavy metals, it requires
physical removal. The most
common heavy metals at
hazardous waste sites are Cd,
Cr, Cu, Pb, Hg, Ni and Zn, in
which Pb and Hg pose most
serious and sometimes life
threatening health hazards.
The capacity of plants to
absorb and extract various
substances, including toxins,
and accumulate them in their
above-ground parts makes
them a promising key to re-
solving this worldwide envi-
ronmental concern. The
heavy metals in plant bio-
mass may be harvested and
further concentrated by in-
cineration or even recycled
for industrial use. This
emerging technology of using
natural or transgenic plants
in facilitating environmental
clean-up is known as phy-
toremediation.

Advantages of phytoreme-
diation
Phytoremediation is a
process that entails low oper-
ational cost, in situ applica-
tion, excavation- or machin-
ery-free procedures, large
scale clean-up operations,
and environmentally friendly
approaches.

Processes involved in phy-
toremediation
Depending on the under-
lying processes, applicability,
and type of contaminant,
phytoremediation can be gen-
erally categorized as: (1) rhi-
zofiltration, the use of roots to
uptake and store contami-
nants from an aqueous
growth matrix, (2) phy-
tostimulation, the use of rhi-
zospheric associations be-
tween plants and symbiotic
soil microbes to degrade con-
taminants, (3) phytodegrada-
tion, in which natural sub-
stances in roots, stems and
leaves help break down con-
taminants, (4) phytostabiliza-
tion, which involves immobili-
zation or binding of contami-
nants into the soil matrix,
thereby reducing their bioa-
vailability, (5) phytoextraction,
the use of plants to absorb,
translocate and store toxic
contaminants into their root
and shoot tissue, and (6) phy-
tovolatilization, the removal of
contaminants by volatiliza-
tion from the leaf surface.

Past and present applica-
tion of phytoremediation
The use of plants in soil
clean-up was first extensively
employed in Chernobyl, a
small town in the former So-
viet Union where a large nu-
clear explosion in 1986
caused severe radioactive
contamination in the entire
region. Assessment in the
area revealed that life-
threatening toxic sub-stances
were left scattered and con-
centrated in soil and even in
plants and animals. An ex-
perimental study conducted
in Chernobyl suggested the
use of Indian mustard to re-
move radioactive strontium
from the soil over a 5-year
period.
In 1996, a transgenic
sunflower (Helianthus sp.)
was reported to have extract-
ed as much as 95% of toxic
contaminants in just 24
hours. This was tested in
Chernobyl and resulted to the
removal of large concentra-
tions of cesium and stronti-
um.
Researchers have also
created a modified tobacco
plant which can aid in detoxi-
fication of soil contaminated
with trinitrotoluene (TNT), a
military explosive. The plant
has the ability to extract TNT
and convert it into another
compound that remains con-
fined within the plant.
Today, more studies are
being conducted for the po-
tential of other plants to be
used in phytoremediation
purposes.
Recent studies showed
the competency of Chrysan-
themum in reducing about
80% of Pb in contaminated
grounds. Zea mays, in addi-
tion, was found to be an ef-
fective accumulator plant to
remedy both Cd- and Pb-
contaminated sites. One re-
search also revealed
Raphanus sativus, or radish,
as hyperaccumulating con-
centrations of heavy metals in
their different parts. Some
other crops like red beet,
pumpkin, chicory, common
bean and cabbage were also
tested for their phytoremedia-
tion efficiency, and results
showed the ability of these
plants to effectively remove
Cd, Pb and Zn in soil. On the
other hand, aquatic plants
also exhibited potential in
environmental clean-up.
Duckweed (Lemna minor), for
instance, showed Pb removal
from polluted water and thus,
may also be helpful in phy-
toremedial studies.
All of these studies are
breakthroughs in the field of
science and technology. While
researchers continue to em-
ploy this promising plant-
based knowledge, rescuing
the environment in the future
could be as simple as calling
Phytoremediation to come
and rescue the world without
taking a wink of your eye.

References
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