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Physiological mechanisms to cope with Cr(VI) toxicity in lettuce: can lettuce be used in Cr phytoremediation?


This research aims at identifying the main deleterious effects of Cr(VI) on the photosynthetic apparatus and at selecting the most sensitive endpoints related to photosynthesis. To achieve this goal, we used lettuce (Lactuca sativa), a sensible ecotoxicological crop model. Three-week-old plants were exposed to 0, 50, 150 and 200 mg L−1 of Cr(VI). These concentrations ranged from levels admitted in irrigation waters to values found in several Cr industry effluents and heavily contaminated environments. After 30 days of exposure, plants accumulated Cr preferably in roots and showed nutritional impairment, with decreases of K, Mg, Fe and Zn in both roots and leaves. Cr(VI)-exposed plants showed decreased levels of chlorophyll (Chl) a and anthocyanins, as well as decreased effective quantum yield of photostystem II (ΦPSII) and photochemical Chl fluorescence quenching (qp), but increases in the non-photochemical Chl fluorescence quenching (NPQ) and in the de-epoxidation state (DEP) of the xanthophyll cycle. Net CO2 assimilation rate (P N ) and RuBisCO activity were mostly impaired in the highest Cr(VI) concentration tested. Concerning the final products of photosynthesis, starch content was not affected, while soluble sugar contents increased. These alterations were accompanied by a reduction in protein content and in plant growth. Our results support that endpoints related to the photosynthesis photochemical processes (ΦPSII and the qp) and the content of anthocyanins are sensitive predictors of Cr(VI) toxicity. The advantages of using these parameters as biomarkers for Cr toxicity in plants are discussed. Finally, we report that, despite showing physiological disorders, L. sativa plants survived and accumulated high doses of Cr, and their use in environmental/decontamination studies is open to debate.

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Fig. 1
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Fig. 4



Ratio of intercellular to atmospheric CO2 concentration




De-epoxidation state of the xanthophyll cycle


Dry weight

E :

Transpiration rate

Fv/Fm :

Maximum quantum yield of PSII


Non-photochemical quenching

P N :

Net CO2 assimilation rate


Photochemical quenching


Photosystem II


Ribulose-1,5-bisphosphate carboxylase/oxygenase


Relative water content


Effective quantum efficiency of PSII

Ψπ :

Osmotic potential


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The Portuguese Science Foundation (FCT) funded the postdoctoral fellowship of M. C. Dias (SFRH/BPD/100865/2014) and of C. Monteiro (SFRH/BD/48204/2008). This work was also financed by FCT/MEC through national funds and the co-funding by the FEDER, within the PT2020 Partnership Agreement and COMPETE 2020, within the project UID/BIA/04004/2013; FEDER/COMPETE/POCI - POCI-01-0145-FEDER-006958, FCT project UID/AGR/04033, and UID/QUI/00062/2013. Authors thank U Feickert and R Caps for technical support.

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Correspondence to Maria Celeste Dias.

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Responsible editor: Elena Maestri

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Dias, M.C., Moutinho-Pereira, J., Correia, C. et al. Physiological mechanisms to cope with Cr(VI) toxicity in lettuce: can lettuce be used in Cr phytoremediation?. Environ Sci Pollut Res 23, 15627–15637 (2016).

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  • Chlorophyll fluorescence
  • Photosynthesis
  • Pigments
  • Proline
  • RuBisCO