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J Ind Microbiol Biotechnol. 2005 Dec;32(11-12):502-13. Epub 2005 Jul 2.

Strategies for the engineered phytoremediation of toxic element pollution: mercury and arsenic.

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Department of Genetics, University of Georgia, Athens, GA 30602, USA.


Plants have many natural properties that make them ideally suited to clean up polluted soil, water, and air, in a process called phytoremediation. We are in the early stages of testing genetic engineering-based phytoremediation strategies for elemental pollutants like mercury and arsenic using the model plant Arabidopsis. The long-term goal is to develop and test vigorous, field-adapted plant species that can prevent elemental pollutants from entering the food-chain by extracting them to aboveground tissues, where they can be managed. To achieve this goal for arsenic and mercury, and pave the way for the remediation of other challenging elemental pollutants like lead or radionucleides, research and development on native hyperaccumulators and engineered model plants needs to proceed in at least eight focus areas: (1) Plant tolerance to toxic elementals is essential if plant roots are to penetrate and extract pollutants efficiently from heterogeneous contaminated soils. Only the roots of mercury- and arsenic-tolerant plants efficiently contact substrates heavily contaminated with these elements. (2) Plants alter their rhizosphere by secreting various enzymes and small molecules, and by adjusting pH in order to enhance extraction of both essential nutrients and toxic elements. Acidification favors greater mobility and uptake of mercury and arsenic. (3) Short distance transport systems for nutrients in roots and root hairs requires numerous endogenous transporters. It is likely that root plasma membrane transporters for iron, copper, zinc, and phosphate take up ionic mercuric ions and arsenate. (4) The electrochemical state and chemical speciation of elemental pollutants can enhance their mobility from roots up to shoots. Initial data suggest that elemental and ionic mercury and the oxyanion arsenate will be the most mobile species of these two toxic elements. (5) The long-distance transport of nutrients requires efficient xylem loading in roots, movement through the xylem up to leaves, and efficient xylem unloading aboveground. These systems can be enhanced for the movement of arsenic and mercury. (6) Aboveground control over the electrochemical state and chemical speciation of elemental pollutants will maximize their storage in leaves, stems, and vascular tissues. Our research suggests ionic Hg(II) and arsenite will be the best chemical species to trap aboveground. (7) Chemical sinks can increase the storage capacity for essential nutrients like iron, zinc, copper, sulfate, and phosphate. Organic acids and thiol-rich chelators are among the important chemical sinks that could trap maximal levels of mercury and arsenic aboveground. (8) Physical sinks such as subcellular vacuoles, epidermal trichome cells, and dead vascular elements have shown the evolutionary capacity to store large quantities of a few toxic pollutants aboveground in various native hyperaccumulators. Specific plant transporters may already recognize gluthione conjugates of Hg(II) or arsenite and pump them into vacuole.

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