Newly Found Plant Eats Nickel
It has big potential in green technology
By Derek Andersen, Newser User
Posted May 12, 2014 10:13 AM CDT
This is the nickel accumulating plant rinorea niccolifera in its native habitat.   (EurekaAlert/Edwino S. Fernando)

(Newser) – 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.)

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May 13, 2014 2:19 PM CDT
This plant is more exciting to the science world as a "phytoremediation" plant, a plant that uses sunlight and minerals and binds up an environmental problem, in that it can attract wastes out of soils, say near nickel mines like in Southern Oregon. Concentrating might be another use, but binding up in a manner that takes a toxic out of the environment is even better. Phytoremediation was first noted in chemical piles mishandled in the Houston Channel area where law suits of "blame" took so long that native plants helped get rid of the nasty chemicals by binding them into woody parts.
May 12, 2014 8:31 PM CDT
Should be called 'The IRS Plant.'
May 12, 2014 4:21 PM CDT
Will it grow indoors? I'd love plants for indoor air quality, but my cats try to eat anything I bring in the house. If these are really unpalatable to animals -- big plus!