, Volume 75, Issue 4, pp 339-364

Phytoremediation of Heavy Metals: Physiological and Molecular Mechanisms

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Abstract

Heavy metals (HM) are a unique class of toxicants since they cannot be broken down to non-toxic forms. Concentration of these heavy metals has increased drastically, posing problems to health and environment, since the onset of the industrial revolution. Once the heavy metals contaminate the ecosystem, they remain a potential threat for many years. Some technologies have long been in use to remove, destroy and sequester these hazardous elements. Even though effective techniques for cleaning the contaminated soils and waters are usually expensive, labour intensive, and often disturbing. Phytoremediation, a fast-emerging new technology for removal of toxic heavy metals, is cost-effective, non-intrusive and aesthetically pleasing. It exploits the ability of selected plants to remediate pollutants from contaminated sites. Plants have inter-linked physiological and molecular mechanisms of tolerance to heavy metals. High tolerance to HM toxicity is based on a reduced metal uptake or increased internal sequestration, which is manifested by interaction between a genotype and its environment. The growing interest in molecular genetics has increased our understanding of mechanisms of HM tolerance in plants and many transgenic plants have displayed increased HM tolerance. Improvement of plants by genetic engineering, i.e., by modifying characteristics like metal uptake, transport and accumulation and plant’s tolerance to metals, opens up new possibilities of phytoremediation. This paper presents an overview of the molecular and physiological mechanisms involved in the phytoremediation process, and discusses strategies for engineering plants genetically for this purpose.