Plant detective: Missouri S&T professor studies plants as "bio-sentinels" of indoor pollution

November 9, 2018 by Alan Scher Zagier, Missouri University of Science and Technology
Credit: Missouri University of Science and Technology

Behold the common house plant, the front-yard shrub, the rhododendron around back that's seen better days since the next-door neighbors put their home on the market.

They brighten our lawns, increase our property values, even boost our mental and physical health by reducing carbon dioxide levels.

For Dr. Joel Burken, such are far more valuable than as mere window dressing. The Curators' Distinguished Professor and chair of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at Missouri S&T is an expert in phytoforensics, the process of using plants to study human exposure to pollutants.

Plants are "place-bound. They grow in one location and they interact with the soil, the groundwater and the surrounding air," he explains. "They're really masters of mass transfer. They harvest from those surroundings all the carbon, all the water, all the nutrients they need. But chemicals in those surroundings also can accumulate in those plant tissues.

"So if we sample those plants, we're actually sampling those surroundings. And by understanding the chemical exposure to plant pathways, we can also then understand the chemical exposure to human pathways," Burken adds.

In an upcoming article in the journal Science of the Total Environment, doctoral students Majid Bagheri and Khalid Al-jabery, working with Burken and Dr. Donald Wunsch, the Mary K. Finley Missouri Distinguished Professor and professor of computer science at S&T, use machine learning techniques and statistical analysis to help better understand how groundwater contaminants are absorbed by plant roots.

That research builds on a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant awarded to Burken; Dr. V.A. Samaranayake, Curators' Teaching Professor of mathematics and statistics; and Dr. Glenn Morrison, professor of , to study how pollutants absorbed by plants can move through soil and enter a building in a process known as vapor intrusion.

"By understanding the chemical interactions, we really have a potential to sample almost anywhere on the globe—especially the places that we inhabit. And by sampling that plant—a bio-sentinel—we may better understand how we're exposed to chemicals, and how to better prevent that," Burken says.

S&T's phytoforensics efforts have drawn a spate of attention in recent months, and the sensing methods are being put in action.

In addition to the upcoming journal article, "A deeper look at plant uptake of environmental contaminants using intelligent approaches," which will be published in February 2019 but is now available online, NSF is expected to soon publish a video produced by S&T about the work. The video is intended to communicate the research to a broader audience and help transfer S&T's scientific breakthroughs into practice while further protecting human health.

In July, the publication and website Science Journal for Kids presented its own take on the topic, spurred by the S&T research and an article by Burken, Samaranayake, and former doctoral students Dr. Jordan Wilson, now a U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist; and Dr.Matt Limmer, now a University of Delaware postdoctoral fellow, that was published in February 2018 in the PLOS One journal.

The article, "Phytoforensics: Trees as bioindictators of potential indoor exposure via vapor intrustion," summarizes the analysis of 121 trees in Nebraska contaminated by the chemical tetrachloroethene (PCE), comparing the tree-core samples (a faster, cheaper and less intrusive collection method) to PCE levels in the surrounding groundwater, soil and nearby indoor locations.

Explore further: Nature's expert witnesses: Plants tell of environmental pollution

More information: Jordan L. Wilson et al. Phytoforensics: Trees as bioindicators of potential indoor exposure via vapor intrusion, PLOS ONE (2018). DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0193247

Related Stories

What can be done about a water shortage?

May 20, 2015

The water crisis in the western United States – most notably in California and Washington – may be the most severe and most publicized, but other threats to the nation's water supply loom, says Dr. Joel Burken, professor ...

How plants absorb pollutants

March 29, 2011

The environmental concern is great when considering the role of toxic contaminants in the plant-soil relationship. Understanding plant's absorption and accumulation of these contaminants from the soil would be incredibly ...

Recommended for you

The powerful meteor that no one saw (except satellites)

March 19, 2019

At precisely 11:48 am on December 18, 2018, a large space rock heading straight for Earth at a speed of 19 miles per second exploded into a vast ball of fire as it entered the atmosphere, 15.9 miles above the Bering Sea.

Revealing the rules behind virus scaffold construction

March 19, 2019

A team of researchers including Northwestern Engineering faculty has expanded the understanding of how virus shells self-assemble, an important step toward developing techniques that use viruses as vehicles to deliver targeted ...

Nanoscale Lamb wave-driven motors in nonliquid environments

March 19, 2019

Light driven movement is challenging in nonliquid environments as micro-sized objects can experience strong dry adhesion to contact surfaces and resist movement. In a recent study, Jinsheng Lu and co-workers at the College ...

Levitating objects with light

March 19, 2019

Researchers at Caltech have designed a way to levitate and propel objects using only light, by creating specific nanoscale patterning on the objects' surfaces.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.