This Unique Philippine Plant Eats Metal and Soil Pollutants
ILLUSTRATOR MARIO ALVARO LIMOS
A little-known plant that is fairly new to science eats metal and absorbs soil pollutants, and it is found in only one place in the world: Luzon, Philippines.
Rinorea niccolifera (Violaceae) is a metal-eating plant that has the ability to hyperaccumulate or absorb in large amounts of nickel. According to New Phytologist Foundation, hyperaccumulators are unusual plants that accumulate particular metals or metalloids in their living tissues to levels that may be hundreds or thousands of times greater than is normal for most plants.
Filipino researchers Fernando et al published their findings about R. niccolifera in the open-source journal PhytoKeys. According to the authors, field screening for nickel accumulation in R. niccolifera indicated high levels of the metal in the leaves, which had nickel concentrations of up to 18,388 micrograms.
“The ability to absorb certain metals and metalloids (chemical elements with properties in between those of metals and non-metals, also referred to as semi-metals) from the soil and to accumulate them in shoot tissues in exceptionally high and normally toxic concentrations without any evidence of physiological stress is rather rare among plants,” wrote the authors.
Because of its unique ability, the plant is seen as a potential tool for soil rehabilitation and green mining. Instead of digging up the earth for metals, humans could just plant hyperaccumulators and harvest the metals in their leaves.
“Hyperaccumulator plants have received considerable attention owing to the possibility of exploiting their accumulation traits for practical applications, especially in the development of so-called environmentally green technologies, e.g. phytoextraction, phytoremediation of heavy metal in contaminated soils, or phytomining to recover commercially valuable metals in plant shoots from mineralized sites,” wrote the authors.
The nickel-eating plant could also be valuable in removing toxic levels of nickel in the soil, especially in a mining area where soil is contaminated. In fact, research on the plant is part of the Program on the Rehabilitation and Restoration of Mining Areas through Phytotechnologies, which is funded by the Department of Science and Technology.
There are other species of hyperaccumulating plants around the world, which absorb different metals. Imagine if we discovered a plant that eats gold in the soil. Now that is something to hope for.
Edwino S. Fernando, et al. (2014). Rinorea niccolifera (Violaceae), a new, nickel-hyperaccumulating species from Luzon Island, Philippines. Retrieved from https://phytokeys.pensoft.net/article/1527/ on 29 March 2023.