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Metal eating tree discovered

A plant just discovered in the jungles of the Philippines could help clean up contaminated industrial sites. Source: Takepart

Researchers have made an astonishing discovery in the jungles of the Philippines: a scrubby tree that sucks metals out of the ground and stores them in its leaves.

It’s not the first hyperaccumulating plant but it is the newest addition to a family that could give a boost to green tech.

The plant, called Rinorea niccolifera, can accumulate up to 18,000 ppm of metal in its leaves and roots without being poisoned.

These plants could be used to clean up old mines or metal-filled soils, and the roots and leaves can be burned, leaving behind valuable metals that can be sold and repurposed.

Only about 450 species around the world have the ability to suck up nickel from the soil.

“Most plants—99.99% of plant species—are very good at excluding the metal from entering their roots and shoots,” said Augustine Doronila, a research fellow at the University of Melbourne.

The find occurred in metal-rich soils on the island of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest.

The researchers had to carefully measure the characteristics of the new species and gather its fruits and flowers over the course of years.

Because the species was in a mining region, Doronila said, “it was even more imperative to try to learn more about it in order to gain knowledge, which can help us propagate [the plant] and return it to the minedout areas.”

The idea of deploying plants in the fight for cleaner ecosystems is not new; using them for the purpose of extracting metals from contaminated soil started to get popular in the 1990s.

Estimates of the worldwide potential for phytoremediation are $30 billion to $50 billion.

Using plants for environmental remediation may be even more attractive in developing countries because of the low cost—there’s even the potential to pay for the effort by selling the extracted metals.

Countries that have taken the lead in harnessing this green technology are China, Thailand, Brazil, and India.

“What is significant about this newly described species is it is a tree as most of the other species previously discovered are shrubs,” Mr Doronila said.

The plant’s possibilities could go beyond mining and remediating contaminated soils.

“If we can understand the chemistry of how these plants can load themselves with so much nickel without being poisoned, it may help us make novel compounds to combat some degenerative disease,” said Mr Doronila.