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New Nickel-Eating Plant Species Discovered in Philippines

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May 10, 2014 11:16 AM EDT
new plant species, Rinorea niccolifera
A team of Philippine researchers discovered a new nickel-eating plant species that feeds on metal without being poisoned. Pictured: Rinorea niccolifera. (Photo : Dr. Edwino S. Fernando; CC-BY 4.0)

A team of Philippine researchers discovered a new nickel-eating plant species that feeds on metal without being poisoned.

The new species, called Rinorea niccolifera, stores more than 18,000 parts per million (ppm) of nickel in its leaves without the fear of poisoning itself - that's up to 1,000 times more than any other plant.

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Native to the western part of Luzon Island in the Philippines, this plant has the unique ability to absorb metal in high amounts, a phenomenon known as nickel hyperaccumulation.

Only about 0.5-1 percent of plant species native to nickel-rich soils exhibit this rare ability. And only about 450 plant species worldwide posess the unusual trait - that's nothing considering the estimated 300,000 species of vascular plants in existence.

Professor Edwino Fernando, lead author of the study, discovered the new species among Philippine soil that's rich in heavy metals.

"Hyperacccumulator plants have great potentials for the development of green technologies, for example, 'phytoremediation' and 'phytomining'," the University of Melbourne school of chemistry's Augustine Doronila, who is also co-author of the report, explained in a statement.

Phytoremediation is a process where hyperacccumulator plants are used to remove heavy metals from contaminated soil. This process is very beneficial for the food industry as it prevents toxic metals from entering the food chain.

"One of the primary ways toxic heavy metals, such as cadmium, get in food is through plant uptake-the metal is taken up by the roots and deposited in edible portions," ARS plant physiologist Leon V. Kochian said in a press release. "Contaminated soils and waters pose major environmental, agricultural, and human health problems worldwide. These problems may be partially solved by an emerging new technology-phytoremediation."

Phytomining, on the other hand, is the use of hyperacccumulator plants to grow and harvest in order to recover commercially valuable metals embedded in plant shoots.

The Department of Science and Technology, Philippine Council for Industry, Energy, and Emerging Technology Research and Development funded the current project. Findings were documented in the journal PhytoKeys.

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