New species of metal-eating plant discovered in the Philippines

May 09, 2014
This photo shows the metal-eating plant, Rinorea niccolifera, in its natural habitat. Credit: Dr. Edwino S. Fernando

Scientists from the University of the Philippines, Los Baños have discovered a new plant species with an unusual lifestyle—it eats nickel for a living—accumulating up to 18,000 ppm of the metal in its leaves without itself being poisoned, says Professor Edwino Fernando, lead author of the report. Such an amount is a hundred to a thousand times higher than in most other plants. The study was published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

The new is called Rinorea niccolifera, reflecting its ability to absorb nickel in very high amounts. Nickel hyperaccumulation is such a rare phenomenon with only about 0.5–1% of plant species native to nickel-rich soils having been recorded to exhibit the ability. Throughout the world, only about 450 species are known with this unusual trait, which is still a small proportion of the estimated 300,000 species of vascular plants.

The , according to Dr Marilyn Quimado, one of the lead scientists of the research team, was discovered on the western part of Luzon Island in the Philippines, an area known for soils rich in heavy metals.

"Hyperacccumulator plants have great potentials for the development of green technologies, for example, 'phytoremediation' and 'phytomining'", explains Dr Augustine Doronila of the School of Chemistry, University of Melbourne, who is also co-author of the report.

This photo shows the newly described metal-eating plant, Rinorea niccolifera. Credit: Dr. Edwino S. Fernando

Phytoremediation refers to the use of hyperacccumulator plants to remove heavy metals in contaminated soils. Phytomining, on the other hand, is the use of hyperacccumulator to grow and harvest in order to recover commercially valuable metals in plant shoots from metal-rich sites.

Explore further: Serpentine ecosystems shed light on the nature of plant adaptation and speciation

More information: Fernando ES, Quimado MO, Doronila AI (2014) Rinorea niccolifera (Violaceae), a new, nickel-hyperaccumulating species from Luzon Island, Philippines. PhytoKeys 37: 1–13. DOI: 10.3897/phytokeys.37.7136

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