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J Trace Elem Med Biol. 2005;19(2-3):125-40. Epub 2005 Oct 24.

Trace elements in agroecosystems and impacts on the environment.

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  • 1MOE Key Lab, Environment Remediation and Ecosystem Health, College of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, China Zhejiang University, Huajiachi Campus, Hangzhou 310029, China.


Trace elements mean elements present at low concentrations (mg kg-1 or less) in agroecosystems. Some trace elements, including copper (Cu), zinc (Zn), manganese (Mn), iron (Fe), molybdenum (Mo), and boron (B) are essential to plant growth and are called micronutrients. Except for B, these elements are also heavy metals, and are toxic to plants at high concentrations. Some trace elements, such as cobalt (Co) and selenium (Se), are not essential to plant growth but are required by animals and human beings. Other trace elements such as cadmium (Cd), lead (Pb), chromium (Cr), nickel (Ni), mercury (Hg), and arsenic (As) have toxic effects on living organisms and are often considered as contaminants. Trace elements in an agroecosystem are either inherited from soil parent materials or inputs through human activities. Soil contamination with heavy metals and toxic elements due to parent materials or point sources often occurs in a limited area and is easy to identify. Repeated use of metal-enriched chemicals, fertilizers, and organic amendments such as sewage sludge as well as wastewater may cause contamination at a large scale. A good example is the increased concentration of Cu and Zn in soils under long-term production of citrus and other fruit crops. Many chemical processes are involved in the transformation of trace elements in soils, but precipitation-dissolution, adsorption-desorption, and complexation are the most important processes controlling bioavailability and mobility of trace elements in soils. Both deficiency and toxicity of trace elements occur in agroecosystems. Application of trace elements in fertilizers is effective in correcting micronutrient deficiencies for crop production, whereas remediation of soils contaminated with metals is still costly and difficult although phytoremediation appears promising as a cost-effective approach. Soil microorganisms are the first living organisms subjected to the impacts of metal contamination. Being responsive and sensitive, changes in microbial biomass, activity, and community structure as a result of increased metal concentration in soil may be used as indicators of soil contamination or soil environmental quality. Future research needs to focus on the balance of trace elements in an agroecosystem, elaboration of soil chemical and biochemical parameters that can be used to diagnose soil contamination with or deficiency in trace elements, and quantification of trace metal transport from an agroecosystem to the environment.

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