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Implications of metal accumulation mechanisms to phytoremediation

Abdul R Memon, Peter Schröder
Environmental Science and Pollution Research International 2009, 16 (2): 162-75
19067014

BACKGROUND, AIM, AND SCOPE: Trace elements (heavy metals and metalloids) are important environmental pollutants, and many of them are toxic even at very low concentrations. Pollution of the biosphere with trace elements has accelerated dramatically since the Industrial Revolution. Primary sources are the burning of fossil fuels, mining and smelting of metalliferous ores, municipal wastes, agrochemicals, and sewage. In addition, natural mineral deposits containing particularly large quantities of heavy metals are found in many regions. These areas often support characteristic plant species thriving in metal-enriched environments. Whereas many species avoid the uptake of heavy metals from these soils, some of them can accumulate significantly high concentrations of toxic metals, to levels which by far exceed the soil levels. The natural phenomenon of heavy metal tolerance has enhanced the interest of plant ecologists, plant physiologists, and plant biologists to investigate the physiology and genetics of metal tolerance in specialized hyperaccumulator plants such as Arabidopsis halleri and Thlaspi caerulescens. In this review, we describe recent advances in understanding the genetic and molecular basis of metal tolerance in plants with special reference to transcriptomics of heavy metal accumulator plants and the identification of functional genes implied in tolerance and detoxification.

RESULTS: Plants are susceptible to heavy metal toxicity and respond to avoid detrimental effects in a variety of different ways. The toxic dose depends on the type of ion, ion concentration, plant species, and stage of plant growth. Tolerance to metals is based on multiple mechanisms such as cell wall binding, active transport of ions into the vacuole, and formation of complexes with organic acids or peptides. One of the most important mechanisms for metal detoxification in plants appears to be chelation of metals by low-molecular-weight proteins such as metallothioneins and peptide ligands, the phytochelatins. For example, glutathione (GSH), a precursor of phytochelatin synthesis, plays a key role not only in metal detoxification but also in protecting plant cells from other environmental stresses including intrinsic oxidative stress reactions. In the last decade, tremendous developments in molecular biology and success of genomics have highly encouraged studies in molecular genetics, mainly transcriptomics, to identify functional genes implied in metal tolerance in plants, largely belonging to the metal homeostasis network.

DISCUSSION: Analyzing the genetics of metal accumulation in these accumulator plants has been greatly enhanced through the wealth of tools and the resources developed for the study of the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana such as transcript profiling platforms, protein and metabolite profiling, tools depending on RNA interference (RNAi), and collections of insertion line mutants. To understand the genetics of metal accumulation and adaptation, the vast arsenal of resources developed in A. thaliana could be extended to one of its closest relatives that display the highest level of adaptation to high metal environments such as A. halleri and T. caerulescens.

CONCLUSIONS: This review paper deals with the mechanisms of heavy metal accumulation and tolerance in plants. Detailed information has been provided for metal transporters, metal chelation, and oxidative stress in metal-tolerant plants. Advances in phytoremediation technologies and the importance of metal accumulator plants and strategies for exploring these immense and valuable genetic and biological resources for phytoremediation are discussed.

RECOMMENDATIONS AND PERSPECTIVES: A number of species within the Brassicaceae family have been identified as metal accumulators. To understand fully the genetics of metal accumulation, the vast genetic resources developed in A. thaliana must be extended to other metal accumulator species that display traits absent in this model species. A. thaliana microarray chips could be used to identify differentially expressed genes in metal accumulator plants in Brassicaceae. The integration of resources obtained from model and wild species of the Brassicaceae family will be of utmost importance, bringing most of the diverse fields of plant biology together such as functional genomics, population genetics, phylogenetics, and ecology. Further development of phytoremediation requires an integrated multidisciplinary research effort that combines plant biology, genetic engineering, soil chemistry, soil microbiology, as well as agricultural and environmental engineering.

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