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Phytoremediation With Hyperaccumulators


A study published in the JNKVV (Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwavidyalaya) research journal concluded that heavy metal pollution of soil is “emerging at a speedy rate” in India due to industrialisation.


GS II- Environment and Ecology

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. How does soil get contaminated?
  2. What are hyperaccumulator plants?
  3. How can phytoremediation with hyperaccumulators be used to remove toxic metals from the soil?
  4. Advantages of phytoremediation with hyperaccumulators
  5. Disadvantages of phytoremediation with hyperaccumulators

How does soil get contaminated?

  • Soil contamination can happen due to a variety of reasons, including manufacturing, mineral extraction, accidental spills, illegal dumping, leaking underground storage tanks, pesticide and fertiliser use etc.
  • These toxic heavy metals are then absorbed by food crops and other plants before they eventually make their way into our food chain, directly affecting human life along with ecology.

What are hyperaccumulator plants?

  • Phytoremediation refers to the usage of “hyperaccumulator” plants to absorb the toxic materials present in the soil and accumulate in their living tissue.
  • Even though most plants do sometimes accumulate toxic substances, hyperaccumulators have the unusual ability to absorb hundreds or thousands of times greater amounts of these substances than is normal for most plants.
  • Most discovered hyperaccumulator plants typically accumulate nickel and occur on soils that are rich in nickel, cobalt and in some cases, manganese.
  • These hyperaccumulator species have been discovered in many parts of the world including the Mediterranean region (mainly plants of the genus Alyssum), tropical outcrops in Brazi, Cuba, New Caledonia (French territory) and Southeast Asia (mainly plants of the genus Phyllanthus).

How can phytoremediation with hyperaccumulators be used to remove toxic metals from the soil?

  • Suitable plant species can be used to ‘pick up’ the pollutants from the soil through their roots and transport them to their stem, leaves and other parts.
  • After this, these plants can be harvested and either disposed or even used to extract these toxic metals from the plant.
  • This process can be used to remove metals like silver, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, mercury, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, lead and zinc; metalloids such as arsenic and selenium; some radionuclides; and non-metallic components such as boron.
  • But it cannot be used to remove organic pollutants from the ground due to metabolic breakdown.

Advantages of phytoremediation with hyperaccumulators:

  • One of the primary advantages of phytoremediation is the fact that it is quite cost-effective in comparison with other remediation methods.
  • The only major costs attached are related to crop management (planting, weed control, watering, fertilisation, pruning, fencing, harvesting etc.).
  • This method is also relatively simple and doesn’t require any new kinds of specialised technology.
  • Also, no external energy source is required since the plants grow with the help of sunlight.
  • Another important advantage of this method is that it enriches the soil with organic substances and microorganisms which can protect its chemical and biological qualities.
  • Also, while the plants are growing and accumulating toxic heavy metals, they protect the soil from erosion due to wind and water.
  • These plants will already be acclimatised to the region and there will be no legal problems concerning the procurement, transport and use of seeds.

Disadvantages of phytoremediation with hyperaccumulators:

  • It is a very slow and time-consuming process.
  • The restoration of an area with this process can take up to 10 years or more.
  • This means that the area in question cannot be used for any other purposes for up to ten years, including growing other crops and allowing animals to graze it.
    • This comes with a large economic cost, proportional to the size of the area under rehabilitation.
  • The plants to conduct this rehabilitation must be carefully selected based on a large number of characteristics or they could act as an invasive species, growing out of control and upsetting the delicate ecological balance of not just the area under rehabilitation, but also the entire region it is part of.
    • Due to this reason, scientists only propose using species that are native to the region where the phytoremediation project is undertaken.

-Source: Indian Express

December 2023