Hyperaccumulators: the metal-mining plants that put humanity to shame

Alyssum murale. Photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek from Wikimedia Commons.

There exist on our planet certain plants that can, believe it or not, absorb metals from the earth. Researchers in northern Greece are studying how to take advantage of such plants by harvesting the metals from three shrubs which have this capacity. 

These three shrubs — Alyssum murale, Leptoplax emarginata, Bornmuellera tymphae — are known as hyperaccumulators. They have evolved to survive in metal-rich soil by absorbing metals and storing them in their stems or leaves.

Alyssum murale. Photo by Krzysztof Ziarnek from Wikimedia Commons.

Nickel is the primary metal found in these three shrubs, but they also contain traces of zinc, aluminum, cadmium, and gold. These three shrubs are all low flowering shrubs found only in Northern Greece and neighboring Albania. 

Hyperaccumulators are not unique to this part of the world. Other hyperaccumulators are found in other Mediterranean countries, as well as in Brazil, Cuba, New Caledonia, and Southeast Asia. A 2017 study published in the New Phytologist found that there are 721 hyperaccumulator species in the world. In the Philippines, a 2018 study published in the Philippine Journal of Systematic Biology found that the fern Lygodium circinnatum has the highest nickel content of all hyperaccumulators in the country.

Humans have been extracting metals from the earth since early civilization. Over time, mining activities have spiraled down an unsustainable path just to keep up with the rising demands of modern society. Hyperaccumulators, in a way, humiliate humanity. They have been here on earth for far longer, and have been extracting the same metals that humanity has. Unlike humans though, these metal-mining plants have done this much less violently.


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