You’ve likely heard about microbes with the ability to “eat” crude oil (a.k.a., petroleum).
(For excellent scientific coverage of the oil spill see “The Science of the Oil Spill”.)
Interestingly, most of the bacteria used in the bioremediation of oil contamination are from natural populations, rather than genetically engineered in the laboratory.
But can plants help clean up the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico?
That is, can plants, like some bacteria, take up and metabolize the organic components of crude oil?
The use of plants to help clean up the environment has great appeal. The two main reasons why are (1) that the contaminated soils can be treated in situ and (2) that it’s relatively cheap, compared to conventional industrial clean-up methods. (The latter reason is, of course, very enticing to both government and industry.)
Though phytoremediation has a lot of promise, to date, it has had only limited success for several reasons.
Each contaminated site is different. Success in greenhouse studies often can not be replicated in the field, due to all the environmental and biological variables that occur.
Toxicity of site, especially with petroleum-contaminated soils, may kill most plants.
To breakdown toxic organic compounds in the soil, plants must by able to extract them. This is a major limitation.
The solution may be to use the plants’ roots as both a physical and nutritional “scaffolding” for microbes that can metabolize total petroleum hydrocarbons contaminants.
This is called “rhizoremediation”. Briefly, it takes advantage of the fact that plants can form symbiotic relationships with soil bacteria. (More about rhizoremediation later on)
Bottom line: The use of plants for phytoremediation of petroleum-contaminated soils is an emerging technology. Consequently, at the present time plants will likely play a limited role – at least directly – in remediating the Gulf oil spill.
1. Collins, Chris D. (2007) “Implementing Phytoremediation of Petroleum Hydrocarbons”, IN: Phytoremediation- Methods and Reviews, Methods in Biotechnology Vol. 23, pp. 99-108. Abstract
2. Gerhardt, K.E., X.-D. Huanga, B.R. Glicka and B.M. Greenberg (2009) “Phytoremediation and rhizoremediation of organic soil contaminants: Potential and challenges .” Plant Science Vol. 176, pp. 20-30. Abstract
3. Van Epps, A. (2006) “Phytoremediation of Petroleum Hydrocarbons”, Environmental Careers Organization, U.S. EPA. (PDF)
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