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Question Your World: What's the Latest Cool Plant Discovery?

Despite huge Hollywood movies, last minute political shifts, or surprising athletic accomplishments, nothing can come close to bizarre and fascinating like nature. After thousands of years of exploring the most common and remote places we’re still continuing to find truly remarkable aspects of our natural world. Animals, atmospheric change, marine patterns, and many other natural aspects have shocked the senses and rattled the imagination, but sometimes very ordinary things pack quite the shocking punch, especially in plants. So, what’s the latest cool plant discovery? Listen to this Question Your World radio report produced by the Science Museum of Virginia to find out.

Recently a new species of plant, Rinorea Niccolifera, was discovered in the Philippines. At first glance this looks like just an ordinary plant. We have some leaves, a stem, and a couple of branches; you know…no big deal. However, there is a big deal about this plant because it does something quite unexpected. Scientists observed that this plant is capable of absorbing vast quantities of nickel from the surrounding area! Now, keep in mind nickel is a very toxic element and a relatively heavy metal (element) in our periodic table. What’s remarkable about this plant is that it is able to hold a relatively huge amount of nickel, nearly 1,000 times more than what most plants can absorb. This translates to 18,000 parts per million, pretty amazing!

The process of holding on to things like that is called bioaccumulation. Most living things participate in this. For example, you’ve heard about how some fish have a lot of iodine in them, right? Well, that iodine is extracted from the surrounding water and then held in the living system. The various chemicals we take in from our food and drinks have a difficult time leaving our bodies so they attach to fat cells and that becomes what we bioaccumulate. Similarly, this plant is able to bioaccumulate a huge quantity of nickel, which actually makes this plant a hyper-accumulator. Bonus!

This discovery is great news for those interested in using eco-friendly ways to clean up contaminated areas. For example, manufacturing companies produce a lot of waste and metals are often part of the output. These plants lined along manufacturing properties could act as a green-fence, keeping a border that contaminated soil could not get past. Farms could use these plants in areas to keep metals from making their way into our foods as well. Perhaps down the road if there was a way to see if these plants could absorb things other than metals then we could plant them in rivers and lakes to keep our fresh water sources cleaner.

The best thing about this discovery though is that we finally have an excuse to use a lot of plant related puns now. Here we go…

This discovery is so amazing that it had to be shared, we could not leaf this one alone. This further shows the important of science education being tied into the natural world, STEM is very important for our future. If these plants are put in the right hands we could really get to the root of the pollution problem and how to start to solve them!

Article by: Prabir Mehta, Science Museum of Virginia

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