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Metal-eating green plant loves consuming nickel

A new species of metal-eating plant has been discovered in the Philippines, and the plant loves to eat nickel. According to a new study, "Rinorea niccolifera (Violaceae), a new, nickel-hyperaccumulating species from Luzon Island, Philippines." PhytoKeys 3 37: 1–13. AI (2014). You may wish to check out the study's abstract in PhytoKeys 37 (2014) : 1-13. Authors of the research are Fernando ES, Quimado and MO, Doronila. Rinorea niccolifera accumulates to >18,000 µg g-1 of nickel in its leaf tissues and is thus regarded as a Ni hyperaccumulator, says the study's abstract.

New species of metal-eating plant discovered in the Philippines loves nickel.
New species of metal-eating plant discovered in the Philippines loves nickel.Photo credit: Dr. Edwino S. Fernando. This photo shows the newly described metal-eating plant, Rinorea niccolifera. CC-BY 4.0. New species of metal-eating plant discovered in the Philippines.

Scientists from the University of the Philippines, Los Baños have discovered a new plant species with an unusual lifestyle — it eats nickel for a living — accumulating up to 18,000 ppm of the metal in its leaves without itself being poisoned, says Professor Edwino Fernando, lead author of the report. Such an amount is a hundred to a thousand times higher than in most other plants. The study was published in the open access journal PhytoKeys, Pensoft Publishers.

The new species is called Rinorea niccolifera, reflecting its ability to absorb nickel in very high amounts. Sounds like an alien mineral-eating plant that consumes metals, especially nickel? The newly found species is rare. In fact, nickel hyperaccumulation is such a rare phenomenon with only about 0.5–1% of plant species native to nickel-rich soils having been recorded to exhibit the ability. Throughout the world, only about 450 species are known with this unusual trait, which is still a small proportion of the estimated 300,000 species of vascular plants, says the May 9, 2014 news release, "New species of metal-eating plant discovered in the Philippines," Pensoft Publishers.

"Hyperacccumulator plants have great potentials for the development of green technologies, for example, 'phytoremediation' and 'phytomining'", explains Dr Augustine Doronila of the School of Chemistry, University of Melbourne, according to the May 9, 2014 news release, "New species of metal-eating plant discovered in the Philippines." Doronila also is co-author of the report.

Phytoremediation refers to the use of hyperacccumulator plants to remove heavy metals in contaminated soils.

Phytomining, on the other hand, is the use of hyperacccumulator plants to grow and harvest in order to recover commercially valuable metals in plant shoots from metal-rich sites. The field surveys and laboratory work of the scientists are part of the research project funded by the Department of Science and Technology – Philippine Council for Industry, Energy, and Emerging Technology Research and Development (DOST-PCIEERD).

The new species, according to Dr Marilyn Quimado, one of the lead scientists of the research team, was discovered on the western part of Luzon Island in the Philippines, an area known for soils rich in heavy metals.