Do heavy metals and metalloids influence the detoxification of organic xenobiotics in plants?

  • Peter SchröderEmail author
  • Lyudmila Lyubenova
  • Christian Huber


Background, aim and scope

Mixed pollution with trace elements and organic industrial compounds is characteristic for many spill areas and dumping sites. The danger for the environment and human health from such sites is large, and sustainable remediation strategies are urgently needed. Phytoremediation seems to be a cheap and environmentally sound option for the removal of unwanted compounds, and the hyperaccumulation of trace elements and toxic metals is seemingly independent from the metabolism of organic xenobiotics. However, stress reactions, ROS formation and depletion of antioxidants will also cause alterations in xenobiotic detoxification. Here, we investigate the capability of plants to detoxify chlorophenols via glutathione conjugation in a mixed pollution situation.

Materials and methods

Typha latifolia and Phragmites australis plants for the present study were grown under greenhouse conditions in experimental ponds. A Picea abies L. suspension culture was grown in a growth chamber. Cadmium sulphate, sodium arsenate and lead chloride in concentrations from 10 to 500 µM were administered to plants. Enzymes of interest for the present study were: glutathione transferase (GST), glutathione reductase, ascorbate peroxidase and peroxidase. Measurements were performed according to published methods. GST spectrophotometric assays included the model substrates CDNB, DCNB, NBC, NBoC and the herbicide Fluorodifen.


Heavy metals lead to visible stress symptoms in higher plants. Besides one long-term experiment of 72 days duration, the present study shows time and concentration-dependent plant alterations already after 24 and 72 h Cd incubation. P. abies spruce cell cultures react to CdSO4 and Na2HAsO4 with an oxidative burst, similar to that observed after pathogen attack or elicitor treatment. Cd application resulted in a reduction in GSH and GSSG contents. When a heavy metal mixture containing Na2HAsO4, CdSO4 and PbCl2 was applied to cultures, both GSH and GSSG levels declined. Incubation with 80 µM arsenic alone doubled GSSG values. Based on these results, further experiments were performed in whole plants of cattail and reed, using cadmium in Phragmites and cadmium and arsenic in Typha as inducers of stress. In Phragmites australis, GST activities for CDNB and DCNB were significantly reduced after short-term Cd exposure (24 h). In the same samples, all antioxidant enzymes increased with rising heavy metal concentrations. Typha latifolia rhizome incubation with Cd and As leads to an increase in glutathione reductase and total peroxidase activity and to a decrease in ascorbate peroxidase activity. Measurements of the same enzymes in leaves of the same plants show increased GR activities, but no change in peroxidases. GST conjugation for CDNB was depressed in both cattail rhizomes and leaves treated with Cd. After As application increased, DCNB enzyme activities were detected.


T. latifolia and P. australis are powerful species for phytoremediation because they penetrate a large volume of soil with their extensive root and rhizome systems. However, an effective remediation process will depend on active detoxifying enzymes, and also on the availability of conjugation partners, e.g. glutathione and its analogues. Species-specific differences seem to exist between the regulations of primary defence enzymes like SOD, catalase, peroxidases, whereas others prefer to induce the glutathione-dependent enzymes. As long as the pollutant mix encountered is simple and dominated by heavy metals, plant defence might be sufficient. When pollution plumes contain heavy metals and organic xenobiotics at the same time, this means that part of the detoxification capacity, at least of glutathione-conjugating reactions, is withdrawn from the heavy metal front to serve other purposes. In fact, glutathione S-transferases show strong reactions in stressed plants or in the presence of heavy metals. The spruce cell culture was a perfect model system to study short-term responses on heavy metal impact. Overall, and on the canopy level, this inhibitory effect might result in a lower detoxification capacity for organic pollutants and thus interfere with phytoremediation.


We present evidence that pollution with heavy metals will interfere with both the oxidative stress defence in plants, and with their ability to conjugate organic xenobiotics. Despite plant-species-dependent differences, the general reactions seem to include oxidative stress and an induction of antioxidative enzymes. Several processes seem to depend on direct binding of heavy metals to enzyme proteins, but effects on transcription are also observed. Induction of xenobiotic metabolism will be obtained at high heavy metal concentrations, when plant stress is elevated.

Recommendations and perspectives

Plants for phytoremediation of complex pollution mixtures have to be selected according to three major issues: uptake/accumulation capacity, antioxidative stress management, and detoxification/binding properties for both the trace elements and the organic xenobiotics. By way of this, it might be possible to speed up the desired remediation process and/or to obtain the desired end products. And, amongst the end products, emphasis should be laid on industrial building materials, biomass for insulation or biogas production, but not for feed and fodder. Each of these attempts would increase the chances for publicly accepted use of phytoremediation and help to cure the environment.


Detoxification Heavy metals Inducible metabolism Multiple pollution Organic xenobiotics Phytoremediation 



Funding for Lyudmila Lyubenova by a grant from the Bavarian State Ministry for Education and Arts in the frame of the BAYHOST programme is gratefully accepted. This cooperative work was stimulated by the activities of COST Action 859 “Phytotechnologies to promote sustainable land use and improve food safety”.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Peter Schröder
    • 1
    Email author
  • Lyudmila Lyubenova
    • 1
  • Christian Huber
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Microbe–Plant Interactions, Helmholtz Zentrum MünchenGerman Research Center for Environmental HealthNeuherbergGermany

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