In our current summer exhibit, ‘What Use Are Metals To Me?’ we examine some of the many important roles metals play in our lives. One of those roles is in health. We require trace amounts of metals such as copper for our bodies to function properly. Too much however, and we run the risk of illness, at least most of us.
One isolated group of people living in the Andes has adapted to the presence of arsenic in their environment. Where most people would absorb the toxic element, these people have adapted to flush it from their bodies.
So what does this have to do with plants?
Anyone who gardens knows there is a wide variety of conditions under which different species thrive. Some plants like acidic soils, some like alkaline soils, and as it turns out, some handle metallic soils quite well.
This has two potential benefits to us.
If we plant species capable of absorbing a contaminant from a soil, we will be able to clean the soils, making them capable of sustaining other species, without having to remove and process the soils. This is called pytoremediation.
Now what if said plants readily absorbed a metal we value, such as gold or nickel? Could we harvest the plants and recover the metals? Yes. This is called pytomining, and it offers one more method by which we can extract from the earth the metals we need.
So what use are metals to plants? The answer depends upon the species in question. The fact that some plants readily absorb metals from soils however opens new horizons for how we can both meet our demand for certain metals as well as restore lands that have been contaminated by previous industrial activity.