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Phytoremediation /ˌfaɪtəʊrɪˌmiːdɪˈeɪʃən/ (from Ancient Greek φυτό (phyto), meaning 'plant', and Latin remedium, meaning 'restoring balance') refers to the technologies that use living plants to clean up soil, air, and water contaminated with hazardous chemicals.[1]

Phytoremediation is a cost-effective plant-based approach of remediation that takes advantage of the ability of plants to concentrate elements and compounds from the environment and to metabolize various molecules in their tissues. It refers to the natural ability of certain plants called hyperaccumulators to bioaccumulate, degrade, or render harmless contaminants in soils, water, or air. Toxic heavy metals and organic pollutants are the major targets for phytoremediation. Knowledge of the physiological and molecular mechanisms of phytoremediation began to emerge in recent years together with biological and engineering strategies designed to optimize and improve phytoremediation. In addition, several field trials confirmed the feasibility of using plants for environmental cleanup.[2]


Phytoremediation may be applied wherever the soil or static water environment has become polluted or is suffering ongoing chronic pollution. Examples where phytoremediation has been used successfully include the restoration of abandoned metal mine workings, and sites where polychlorinated biphenyls have been dumped during manufacture and mitigation of ongoing coal mine discharges reducing the impact of contaminants in soils, water, or air. Contaminants such as metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives,[3] and crude oil and its derivatives, have been mitigated in phytoremediation projects worldwide. Many plants such as mustard plants, alpine pennycress, hemp, and pigweed have proven to be successful at hyperaccumulating contaminants at toxic waste sites.

Over the past 20 years, this technology has become increasingly popular and has been employed at sites with soils contaminated with lead, uranium, and arsenic. While it has the advantage that environmental concerns may be treated in situ, one major disadvantage of phytoremediation is that it requires a long-term commitment, as the process is dependent on a plant's ability to grow and thrive in an environment that is not ideal for normal plant growth.

Advantages and limitations

  • Advantages:
    • the cost of the phytoremediation is lower than that of traditional processes both in situ and ex situ
    • the plants can be easily monitored
    • the possibility of the recovery and re-use of valuable metals (by companies specializing in "phyto mining")
    • it is potentially the least harmful method because it uses naturally occurring organisms and preserves the environment in a more natural state.
    • it preserves the topsoil, maintaining the fertility of the soil[4]
    • the use of plants also reduces erosion and metal leaching in the soil[4]
  • Limitations:
    • phytoremediation is limited to the surface area and depth occupied by the roots.
    • slow growth and low biomass require a long-term commitment
    • with plant-based systems of remediation, it is not possible to completely prevent the leaching of contaminants into the groundwater (without the complete removal of the contaminated ground, which in itself does not resolve the problem of contamination)
    • the survival of the plants is affected by the toxicity of the contaminated land and the general condition of the soil.
    • bio-accumulation of contaminants, especially metals, into the plants which then pass into the food chain, from primary level consumers upwards or requires the safe disposal of the affected plant material.
    • when taking up heavy metals, sometimes the metal is bound to the soil organic matter, which makes it unavailable for the plant to extract[5]

Various processes

Phytoremediation process

A range of processes mediated by plants or algae are useful in treating environmental problems:


Phytoextraction (or phytoaccumulation or phytosequestration) uses plants or algae to remove contaminants from soil or water into harvestable plant biomass. The roots take up substances from the soil or water and concentrate it above ground in the plant biomass[4] Organisms that can uptake extremely high amounts of contaminants from the soil are called hyperaccumulators.[6] Phytoextraction can also be performed by plants (e.g.Populus and Salix) that take up lower levels of pollutants, but due to their high growth rate and biomass production, may remove a considerable amount of contaminants from the soil.[7] Phytoextraction has been growing rapidly in popularity worldwide for the last twenty years or so. In general, this process has been tried more often for extracting heavy metals than for organics. At the time of disposal, contaminants are typically concentrated in the much smaller volume of the plant matter than in the initially contaminated soil or sediment. After harvest, a lower level of the contaminant will remain in the soil, so the growth/harvest cycle must usually be repeated through several crops to achieve a significant cleanup. After the process, the cleaned soil can support other vegetation. Mining of these extracted metals through phytomining, is also being experimented with as a way of recovering the material.[5]


The main advantage of phytoextraction is environmental friendliness. Traditional methods that are used for cleaning up heavy metal-contaminated soil disrupt soil structure and reduce soil productivity, whereas phytoextraction can clean up the soil without causing any kind of harm to soil quality. Another benefit of phytoextraction is that it is less expensive alternative to cleaning up soil or water.


As this process is controlled by plants, it takes more time than anthropogenic soil clean-up methods.

Two versions

  • natural hyper-accumulation, where plants naturally take up the contaminants in soil unassisted. In many cases natural hyperaccumulators are metallophyte plants that can tolerate and incorporate high levels of toxic metals.
  • induced or assisted hyper-accumulation, where a conditioning fluid containing a chelator or another agent is added to soil to increase metal solubility or mobilization so that the plants can absorb them more easily.


Examples of plants that are known to accumulate the following contaminants:


Phytostabilization reduces the mobility of substances in the environment, for example, by limiting the leaching of substances from the soil. It focuses on the long term stabilization and containment of the pollutant. The plant immobilizes the pollutants by binding them to soil particles making them less available for plant or human uptake.[5] Unlike phytoextraction, phytostabilization focuses mainly on sequestering pollutants in soil near the roots but not in plant tissues. Pollutants become less bioavailable, resulting in reduced exposure. The plants can also excrete a substance that produces a chemical reaction, converting the heavy metal pollutant into a less toxic form.[4] An example application of phytostabilization is using a vegetative cap to stabilize and contain mine tailings.[13]


Phytotransformation results in the chemical modification of environmental substances as a direct result of plant metabolism, often resulting in their inactivation, degradation (phytodegradation), or immobilization (phytostabilization). In the case of organic pollutants, such as pesticides, explosives, solvents, industrial chemicals, and other xenobiotic substances, certain plants, such as Cannas, render these substances non-toxic by their metabolism.[14] In other cases, microorganisms living in association with plant roots may metabolize these substances in soil or water. These complex and recalcitrant compounds cannot be broken down to basic molecules (water, carbon-dioxide, etc.) by plant molecules, and, hence, the term phytotransformation represents a change in chemical structure without complete breakdown of the compound. The term "Green Liver" is used to describe phytotransformation,[15] as plants behave analogously to the human liver when dealing with these xenobiotic compounds (foreign compound/pollutant).[16][17] After uptake of the xenobiotics, plant enzymes increase the polarity of the xenobiotics by adding functional groups such as hydroxyl groups (-OH).

This is known as Phase I metabolism, similar to the way that the human liver increases the polarity of drugs and foreign compounds (drug metabolism). Whereas in the human liver enzymes such as cytochrome P450s are responsible for the initial reactions, in plants enzymes such as peroxidases, phenoloxidases, esterases and nitroreductases carry out the same role.[14]

In the second stage of phytotransformation, known as Phase II metabolism, plant biomolecules such as glucose and amino acids are added to the polarized xenobiotic to further increase the polarity (known as conjugation). This is again similar to the processes occurring in the human liver where glucuronidation (addition of glucose molecules by the UGT class of enzymes, e.g. UGT1A1) and glutathione addition reactions occur on reactive centres of the xenobiotic.

Phase I and II reactions serve to increase the polarity and reduce the toxicity of the compounds, although many exceptions to the rule are seen. The increased polarity also allows for easy transport of the xenobiotic along aqueous channels.

In the final stage of phytotransformation (Phase III metabolism), a sequestration of the xenobiotic occurs within the plant. The xenobiotics polymerize in a lignin-like manner and develop a complex structure that is sequestered in the plant. This ensures that the xenobiotic is safely stored, and does not affect the functioning of the plant. However, preliminary studies have shown that these plants can be toxic to small animals (such as snails), and, hence, plants involved in phytotransformation may need to be maintained in a closed enclosure.

Hence, the plants reduce toxicity (with exceptions) and sequester the xenobiotics in phytotransformation. Trinitrotoluene phytotransformation has been extensively researched and a transformation pathway has been proposed.[18]


Phytostimulation is the enhancement of soil microbial activity for the degradation of contaminants, typically by organisms that associate with roots. This process is also known as rhizosphere degradation. Phytostimulation can also involve aquatic plants supporting active populations of microbial degraders, as in the stimulation of atrazine degradation by hornwort.[19]


Phytovolatilization is the removal of substances from soil or water with release into the air, sometimes as a result of phytotransformation to more volatile and/or less polluting substances.


Rhizofiltration is a process that filters water through a mass of roots to remove toxic substances or excess nutrients. The pollutants remain absorbed in or adsorbed to the roots.

Biological hydraulic containment

Biological hydraulic containment occurs when some plants, like poplars, draw water upwards through the soil into the roots and out through the plant, which decreases the movement of soluble contaminants downwards, deeper into the site and into the groundwater.[20]


Phytodesalination uses halophytes (plants adapted to saline soil) to extract salt from the soil to improve its fertility[4]

Role of genetics

Breeding programs and genetic engineering are powerful methods for enhancing natural phytoremediation capabilities, or for introducing new capabilities into plants. Genes for phytoremediation may originate from a micro-organism or may be transferred from one plant to another variety better adapted to the environmental conditions at the cleanup site. For example, genes encoding a nitroreductase from a bacterium were inserted into tobacco and showed faster removal of TNT and enhanced resistance to the toxic effects of TNT.[21] Researchers have also discovered a mechanism in plants that allows them to grow even when the pollution concentration in the soil is lethal for non-treated plants. Some natural, biodegradable compounds, such as exogenous polyamines, allow the plants to tolerate concentrations of pollutants 500 times higher than untreated plants, and to absorb more pollutants.

Hyperaccumulators and biotic interactions

A plant is said to be a hyperaccumulator if it can concentrate the pollutants in a minimum percentage which varies according to the pollutant involved (for example: more than 1000 mg/kg of dry weight for nickel, copper, cobalt, chromium or lead; or more than 10,000 mg/kg for zinc or manganese).[22] This capacity for accumulation is due to hypertolerance, or phytotolerance: the result of adaptative evolution from the plants to hostile environments through many generations. A number of interactions may be affected by metal hyperaccumulation, including protection, interferences with neighbour plants of different species, mutualism (including mycorrhizae, pollen and seed dispersal), commensalism, and biofilm.

Table of hyperaccumulators


As plants are able to translocate and accumulate particular types of contaminants, plants can be used as biosensors of subsurface contamination, thereby allowing investigators to quickly delineate contaminant plumes.[23][24] Chlorinated solvents, such as trichloroethylene, have been observed in tree trunks at concentrations related to groundwater concentrations.[25] To ease field implementation of phytoscreening, standard methods have been developed to extract a section of the tree trunk for later laboratory analysis, often by using an increment borer.[26] Phytoscreening may lead to more optimized site investigations and reduce contaminated site cleanup costs.

See also


  1. ^ Reichenauer TG, Germida JJ (2008). "Phytoremediation of organic contaminants in soil and groundwater". Chemsuschem. 1 (8-9): 708–17. doi:10.1002/cssc.200800125. PMID 18698569. 
  2. ^ Salt DE, Smith RD, Raskin I (1998). "PHYTOREMEDIATION". Annual Review of Plant Physiology and Plant Molecular Biology. 49: 643–668. doi:10.1146/annurev.arplant.49.1.643. PMID 15012249. 
  3. ^ Phytoremediation of soils using Ralstonia eutropha, Pseudomas tolaasi, Burkholderia fungorum reported by Sofie Thijs Archived 2012-03-26 at the Wayback Machine.
  4. ^ a b c d e Ali, Hazrat; Khan, Ezzat; Sajad, Muhammad Anwar. "Phytoremediation of heavy metals—Concepts and applications". Chemosphere. 91 (7): 869–881. doi:10.1016/j.chemosphere.2013.01.075. 
  5. ^ a b c Sarma, Hemen. "Metal Hyperaccumulation in Plants: A Review Focusing on Phytoremediation Technology". Journal of Environmental Science and Technology. 4 (2): 118–138. doi:10.3923/jest.2011.118.138. 
  6. ^ Rascio, Nicoletta; Navari-Izzo, Flavia. "Heavy metal hyperaccumulating plants: How and why do they do it? And what makes them so interesting?". Plant Science. 180 (2): 169–181. doi:10.1016/j.plantsci.2010.08.016. 
  7. ^ Guidi Nissim W.,Palm E.,Mancuso S.,Azzarello E. (2018) "Trace element phytoextraction from contaminated soil: a case study under Mediterranean climate". Environmental Science and Pollution Research
  8. ^ Marchiol, L.; Fellet, G.; Perosa, D.; Zerbi, G. (2007), "Removal of trace metals by Sorghum bicolor and Helianthus annuus in a site polluted by industrial wastes: A field experience", Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, 45 (5): 379–87, doi:10.1016/j.plaphy.2007.03.018, PMID 17507235 
  9. ^ Wang, J.; Zhao, FJ; Meharg, AA; Raab, A; Feldmann, J; McGrath, SP (2002), "Mechanisms of Arsenic Hyperaccumulation in Pteris vittata. Uptake Kinetics, Interactions with Phosphate, and Arsenic Speciation", Plant Physiology, 130 (3): 1552–61, doi:10.1104/pp.008185, PMC 166674Freely accessible, PMID 12428020 
  10. ^ Greger, M. & Landberg, T. (1999), "Using of Willow in Phytoextraction", International Journal of Phytoremediation, 1 (2): 115–123, doi:10.1080/15226519908500010 .
  11. ^ Adler, Tina (July 20, 1996). "Botanical cleanup crews: using plants to tackle polluted water and soil". Science News. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  12. ^ Meagher, RB (2000), "Phytoremediation of toxic elemental and organic pollutants", Current Opinion in Plant Biology, 3 (2): 153–162, doi:10.1016/S1369-5266(99)00054-0, PMID 10712958. 
  13. ^ Mendez MO, Maier RM (2008), "Phytostabilization of Mine Tailings in Arid and Semiarid Environments—An Emerging Remediation Technology", Environ Health Perspect, 116 (3): 278–83, doi:10.1289/ehp.10608, PMC 2265025Freely accessible, PMID 18335091, archived from the original on 2008-10-24. 
  14. ^ a b Kvesitadze, G.; et al. (2006), Biochemical Mechanisms of Detoxification in Higher Plants, Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer, ISBN 978-3-540-28996-8 
  15. ^ Sanderman, H. (1994), "Higher plant metabolism of xenobiotics: the "green liver" concept", Pharmacogenetics, 4: 225–241, doi:10.1097/00008571-199410000-00001 .
  16. ^ Burken, J.G. (2004), "2. Uptake and Metabolism of Organic Compounds: Green-Liver Model", in McCutcheon, S.C.; Schnoor, J.L., Phytoremediation: Transformation and Control of Contaminants, A Wiley-Interscience Series of Texts and Monographs, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, p. 59, doi:10.1002/047127304X.ch2, ISBN 0-471-39435-1 
  17. ^ Ramel, F., Sulmon, C., Serra, A.A., Gouesbet, G., Couée I. (2012), “Xenobiotic sensing and signalling in higher plants”, Journal of Experimental Botany, 63(11):3999-4014, doi: 10.1093/jxb/ers102, PMID 22493519
  18. ^ Subramanian, Murali; Oliver, David J. & Shanks, Jacqueline V. (2006), "TNT Phytotransformation Pathway Characteristics in Arabidopsis: Role of Aromatic Hydroxylamines", Biotechnol. Prog., 22 (1): 208–216, doi:10.1021/bp050241g, PMID 16454512 .
  19. ^ Rupassara, S. I.; Larson, R. A.; Sims, G. K. & Marley, K. A. (2002), "Degradation of Atrazine by Hornwort in Aquatic Systems", Bioremediation Journal, 6 (3): 217–224, doi:10.1080/10889860290777576 .
  20. ^ Evans, Gareth M.; Furlong, Judith C. (2010-01-01). Phytotechnology and Photosynthesis. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. pp. 145–174. doi:10.1002/9780470975152.ch7/summary. ISBN 9780470975152. 
  21. ^ Hannink, N.; Rosser, S. J.; French, C. E.; Basran, A.; Murray, J. A.; Nicklin, S.; Bruce, N. C. (2001), "Phytodetoxification of TNT by transgenic plants expressing a bacterial nitroreductase", Nature Biotechnology, 19 (12): 1168–72, doi:10.1038/nbt1201-1168, PMID 11731787 .
  22. ^ Baker, A. J. M.; Brooks, R. R. (1989), "Terrestrial higher plants which hyperaccumulate metallic elements – A review of their distribution, ecology and phytochemistry", Biorecovery, 1 (2): 81–126 .
  23. ^ Burken, J.; Vroblesky, D.; Balouet, J.C. (2011), "Phytoforensics, Dendrochemistry, and Phytoscreening: New Green Tools for Delineating Contaminants from Past and Present", Environmental Science & Technology, 45 (15): 6218–6226, doi:10.1021/es2005286 .
  24. ^ Sorek, A.; Atzmon, N.; Dahan, O.; Gerstl, Z.; Kushisin, L.; Laor, Y.; Mingelgrin, U.; Nasser, A.; Ronen, D.; Tsechansky, L.; Weisbrod, N.; Graber, E.R. (2008), ""Phytoscreening": The Use of Trees for Discovering Subsurface Contamination by VOCs", Environmental Science & Technology, 42 (2): 536–542, doi:10.1021/es072014b .
  25. ^ Vroblesky, D.; Nietch, C.; Morris, J. (1998), "Chlorinated Ethenes from Groundwater in Tree Trunks", Environmental Science & Technology, 33 (3): 510–515, doi:10.1021/es980848b .
  26. ^ Vroblesky, D. (2008). "User's Guide to the Collection and Analysis of Tree Cores to Assess the Distribution of Subsurface Volatile Organic Compounds". 


  • "Phytoremediation Website" — Includes reviews, conference announcements, lists of companies doing phytoremediation, and bibliographies.
  • "An Overview of Phytoremediation of Lead and Mercury" June 6 2000. The Hazardous Waste Clean-Up Information Web Site.
  • "Enhanced phytoextraction of arsenic from contaminated soil using sunflower" September 22 2004. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • "Phytoextraction", February 2000. Brookhaven National Laboratory 2000.
  • "Phytoextraction of Metals from Contaminated Soil" April 18, 2001. M.M. Lasat
  • July 2002. Donald Bren School of Environment Science & Management.
  • "Phytoremediation" October 1997. Department of Civil Environmental Engineering.
  • "Phytoremediation" June 2001, Todd Zynda.
  • "Phytoremediation of Lead in Residential Soils in Dorchester, MA" May, 2002. Amy Donovan Palmer, Boston Public Health Commission.
  • "Technology Profile: Phytoextraction" 1997. Environmental Business Association.
  • Vassil AD, Kapulnik Y, Raskin I, Salt DE (June 1998), "The Role of EDTA in Lead Transport and Accumulation by Indian Mustard", Plant Physiol., 117 (2): 447–53, doi:10.1104/pp.117.2.447, PMC 34964Freely accessible, PMID 9625697. 
  • Salt, D. E.; Smith, R. D.; Raskin, I. (1998). "Phytoremediation". Annual Review of Plant Physiology and Plant Molecular Biology. 49: 643–668. doi:10.1146/annurev.arplant.49.1.643. PMID 15012249. 
  • K. Oh, T. Li, H. Y. Cheng, Y. Xie, and S. Yonemochi., "Development of Profitable Phytoremediation of Contaminated Soils with Biofuel Crops," Journal of Environmental Protection, vol. 4, pp. 58–64, 2013.
  • X. J. Wang, F. Y. Li, M. Okazaki, and M. Sugisaki, "Phytoremediation of contaminated soil", Annual Report CESS, vol. 3, pp. 114–123, 2003.

External links

  • Missouri Botanical Garden (host): Phytoremediation websiteReview Articles, Conferences, Phytoremediation Links, Research Sponsors, Books and Journals, and Recent Research.
  • International Journal of Phytoremediationdevoted to the publication of current laboratory and field research describing the use of plant systems to remediate contaminated environments.
  • Using Plants To Clean Up Soilsfrom Agricultural Research magazine
  • New Alchemy Instituteco-founded by John Todd (biologist)
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