A newly discovered plant from the Philippines has an unusual appetite—for nickel. In a press release on the find, researchers explain Rinorea niccolifera is a nickel hyperaccumulator, meaning it can absorb up to 18,000 parts per million of the metal in its leaves. That's a "normally toxic concentration" as much as 1,000 times the amount most plants are able to tolerate. If the ability sounds rare, that's because it is: Among the plant species that live in nickel-heavy soil, at most 1% can soak up so much nickel without being poisoned. That translates into roughly 450 plant species planet-wide. And the plant's unique ability may take it beyond the Philippines.
As a co-author of the report explains, "hyperacccumulator plants have great potentials for the development of green technologies." Those technologies include using it to decontaminate soil (plants of this type have done so since the 1990s) or harvesting nickel from its plant shoots in a process known as phytomining. The plant is native to Luzon Island and, according to the paper published in PhytoKeys, it is already endangered, having a fragmented habitat of only about 193 square miles. Ironically, mining activities are one of the main threats to its existence. Hyperaccumulation is thought to have evolved as a defense response, making plants less palatable to the animals that might feed on it, according to a 2011 paper published in Plant Science. (Another recent metal-related discovery: gold, in eucalyptus trees.)