If your worst nightmare involves going to a costume party dressed as C-3PO and being devoured by someone looking like a plant, you may want to avoid the Philippines. That’s where scientists have discovered a new plant species that lives on metal.
Rinorea niccolifera was found on Luzon Island thriving in soil with a high concentration of heavy metals. According to University of the Philippines professor Edwino Fernando, who documented the find in Phytokeys, the plant can absorb 18,000 parts per million of nickel in its leaves without being poisoned – a concentration that is up to 1,000 times higher than in other plants. This trait, called nickel hyperaccumulation, is not new but is extremely rare, occurring in about 450 species and in less than 1% of those growing in nickel-rich soil.
While certainly unusual, is this discovery a big deal? Yes, says Dr. Augustine Doronila of the School of Chemistry, University of Melbourne.
Hyperacccumulator plants have great potentials for the development of green technologies, for example, 'phytoremediation' and 'phytomining'.
In layman’s terms, phytoremediation means using serpentine endemic plants like Rinorea niccolifera to clean up soils contaminated by heavy metals in places like mining sites. Pytomining means growing plants in soils with metal content, then harvesting them and extracting the metals accumulated in the stems and leaves.
The known growing area of Rinorea niccolifera on Luzon Island is quite small, less than 500 square kilometers. However, Professor Fernando points out that much of the plant life on serpentine soils containing high levels of nickel and chromium and low levels of essential nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous is underexplored.
For those heading to the Philippines to look for more serpentine endemics, you may want to leave the robots, metal hats and steel-toed boots at home.