UPLB scientists discover rare metal-eating plant

metal eating plant

First published in The Philippine Star, 17 May 2014

Researchers led by scientists from the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB) have discovered in Zambales a rare species of plant capable of accumulating significant amounts of nickel on its leaves.

The discovery of Rinorea niccolifera was announced in a scientific paper published in open access journal PhytoKeys (http://bit.ly/1gKVfk5).

The name came from the neo-Latin words for nickel (niccolum) and to yield or to contain (fer).

Edwino Fernando and Marilyn Quimado of the UPLB College of Forestry and Natural Resources, and Augustine Doronila of the School of Chemistry of the University of Melbourne, wrote the paper.

Analysis of the plant – found so far only in three localities in Zambales – showed that it is capable of absorbing large amounts of nickel in its leaves, making it one of the few identified “hyperaccumulator” plants in the world.

An article released in Pensoft.net noted that “nickel hyperaccumulation is such a rare phenomenon with only about 0.5-1 percent of plant species native to nickel-rich soils having been recorded to exhibit the ability.”

“Throughout the world, only about 450 species are known with this unusual trait, which is still a small proportion of the estimated 300,000 species of vascular plants,” read the article.

In the research paper, the scientists said “hyperaccumulator plants have received considerable attention owing to the possibility of exploiting their accumulation traits for practical applications.”

These types of plants can be used in the development of green technologies, for instance in “phytoextraction, phytoremediation of heavy metal in contaminated soils, or phytomining to recover commercially valuable metals in plant shoots from mineralized sites,” they added.

The new plant species was discovered in an area which is part of the Zambales Ophiolite Complex, which the researchers described as a host to several metallic deposits like chromium and nickel.

The researchers regarded the species as endangered – its habitat is severely fragmented and subject to open pit mining.

They also observed and projected a continuing decline in its extent of occurrence, area of occupancy, and quality of habitat.

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