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Chemosphere. 2004 Jan;54(3):325-33.

Removal of cyanide by woody plants.

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  • 1Environment and Resources DTU, Technical University of Denmark, Building 115, DK-2800 Kongens Lyngby, Denmark.


Hydrogen cyanide is a high volume production chemical that causes severe environmental problems. The toxicity of potassium cyanide (KCN) to basket willow trees (Salix viminalis) was tested. In aqueous solution, 2 mg CN l(-1) as KCN depressed the transpiration after 72 h about 50%. Trees exposed to 0.4 mg CN l(-1) in aqueous solution showed initially a depression of transpiration, but recovered. Doses of 8 and 20 mg CN l(-1) in aqueous solution were quickly mortal to the trees. At the end of the test, almost all cyanide had disappeared from the solutions. Levels of cyanide in plants were related to the toxicity, with no elevated levels of cyanide in plants exposed to 0.4 mg CN l(-1). Willows grown in sand survived 423.5 h irrigation with 20 mg CN l(-1). Willows grown in sand irrigated with 50 mg CN l(-1) died within a few days. The roots of the surviving willows were able to consume about 10 mg CN kg fresh weight(-1)h(-1). Vascular plants possess the enzymes beta-cyanoalanine synthase and beta-cyanoalanine hydrolase, which convert free cyanide to the amino acid asparagine. The in vivo capacity of woody plants (willow, poplar, elder, rose, birch) to remove cyanide was evaluated. Tests were performed with detached leaves and roots in KCN solutions of different concentrations. The highest removal capacity was obtained for basket willow hybrids (Salix viminalis x schwerinii). The Michaelis-Menten kinetics was determined. Realistic values of the half-saturation constant, K(M), were between 0.6 and 1.7 mg CN l(-1); the maximum metabolic capacity, v(max), was around 9.3 mg CN kg fresh weight(-1)h(-1). The removal of cyanide by plants might be useful in phytoremediation and treatment of wastewater from gold mining.

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