Plant roots police toxic pollutants

X-ray studies reveal details of how P. juliflora shrub roots scavenge and immobilize arsenic from toxic mine tailings.

Working in collaboration with scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, researchers at the University of Arizona have identified details of how certain plants scavenge and accumulate pollutants in contaminated soil. Their work revealed that plant roots effectively “lock up” toxic arsenic found loose in mine tailings—piles of crushed rock, fluid, and soil left behind after the extraction of minerals and metals. The research shows that this strategy of using plants to stabilize pollutants, called phytostabilization, could even be used in arid areas where plants require more watering, because the plant root activity alters the pollutants to forms that are unlikely to leach into groundwater.

The Arizona based researchers were particularly concerned with exploring phytostabilization strategies for mining regions in the southwestern U.S., where tailings can contain high levels of arsenic, a contaminant that has toxic effects on humans and animals. In the arid environment with low levels of vegetation, wind and water erosion can carry arsenic and other metal pollutants to neighboring communities.

>Read more on the National Synchrotron Light Source II (NSLS-II) website

Image: Scientists from the University of Arizona collect plant samples from the mine tailings at the Iron King Mine and Humboldt Smelter Superfund site in central Arizona. X-ray studies at Brookhaven Lab helped reveal how these plants’ roots lock up toxic forms of arsenic in the soil.
Credit: Jon Chorover

Advanced imaging technique used to study triggers of tree mortality

Researchers are using advanced imaging technologies similar to those used in hospitals, including micro-computed tomography on the Imaging and Medical beamline (IMBL) at the Australian Synchrotron, to determine how vulnerable our trees are to drought and heatwaves.
A new scientific review published In Nature outlines progress towards understanding the likely risks from droughts and heatwaves that combine to kill millions of trees around the world with spectacular effects on the environment.

Recent drought and heatwave conditions in northern Australia have killed more than 7000ha of mangrove forests, leaving these essential ecosystems stark, grey skeletons of trees. In California, the prolonged drought period has killed more than 100 million trees that increase the intensity of wildfires and impact on the region’s beauty, tourism and environmental health.
Dead trees, of course, cannot store carbon out of the air and the enormous numbers of dead trees release large quantities of stored carbon back into the air as they are burned or decay, further amplifying the effects of rising carbon dioxide.

>Read more on the Australian Synchrotron website

Image: IMBL robot positions the tree for imaging.

Scientists explore how slow release fertilizer behaves in soil

Testing soil samples at the Canadian Light Source has helped a University of Saskatchewan soil scientist understand how tripolyphosphate (TPP), a slow release form of phosphorus fertilizer, works in the soil as a plant nutrient for much longer periods than previously thought.

Jordan Hamilton says the research also has implications for ongoing efforts by U of S soil scientists to use phosphorous-rich materials to clean up contaminated petroleum sites.

Hamilton, now a post-doctoral fellow working within U of S professor Derek Peak’s Environmental Soil Chemistry group, had a chapter of his PhD thesis, “Chemical speciation and fate of tripolyphosphate after application to a calcareous soil,” published earlier this year in the online journal Geochemical Transactions.

TPP needs to break down into a simpler form of phosphate in order to be used as a nutrient by plants. In most types of soil, the belief was that TPP would break down right away, says Hamilton.

“I would definitely say the biggest surprise is how quickly the TPP adsorbed (attached itself) to mineral sources, especially in these calcium-rich soils,” he said. “For the longer term, it was surprising to see it persist.”

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website

 

New screening technique will allow crop breeders to develop drought resistant varieties faster

Scientists from the Canadian Light Source (CLS) have teamed up with researchers from the University of Saskatchewan to develop a new technique to examine drought tolerance in wheat.

Chithra Karunakaran and Karen Tanino’s team developed a simple non-destructive method to screen hundreds of wheat leaf samples in a day, reducing the time and cost associated with traditional breeding programs to select varieties for drought tolerance. Their findings were published in the November issue of Physiologia Plantarum.

“Developing these types of tools better enables physiologists to complement breeding programs,” says Tanino, Professor of Plant Sciences at the U of S.

 

>Read more on the Canadian Light Source website