A newly discovered plant that can eat nickel was found in the Philippines. The strange plant can take in nickel without being poisoned.
This is according to a team of scientists at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños, Laguna, after discovering that a plant species in the province of Zambales can take in large amounts of nickel than any plant flourishing in nickel-rich soils and still survive.
A shrub about 1.5 to eight meters tall and 3 to 13 cm in diameter, Rinorea niccolifera is a vascular plant that takes up 18,000 parts per million of the nickel in its leaves, which is astoundingly around a hundred or a thousand times higher compared to most plants.
Scientists call this ability nickel hyperaccumulation, an extremely rare ability present in only 0.5 to one percent of the plants that live in soils rich in metal. The plant is also one of the 450 species of the 300,000 known vascular plants that have this kind of unusual characteristic.
Nickel is a toxic metal and a known carcinogen which could be fatal to any living species if induced in large amounts, but hyperaccumulating plants such as the Rinorea niccolifera have their way on how to protect themselves from the poison.
They store the metal in the vacuoles, or the microscopic structures in their cells that have membranes akin to those in the human liver that protects the plant's other cells from the toxic substance.
"Hyperaccumulator plants have great potentials for the development of green technologies, for example, 'phytoremediation' and 'phytomining'," said co-author of the report Augustine Doronila, who is also from the Analytical and Environmental Chemistry Research Group of University of Melbourne's School of Chemistry.
Phytoremediation is a process where hyperaccumulator plants are used to remove heavy metals in contaminated soils, while phytomining is using these hyperaccumulator plants to harvest valuable metals from soils rich in metal.
The newly-discovered plant species mostly found the municipalities of Sta. Cruz and Candelaria in Zambales grows in forests on ultramafic soils, or terrain with low silica content, usually along gullies or sloping areas with large boulders or rocks at 320 to 825 meters high, the scientists wrote in their report.
It comes as a little surprise that the scientists discovered Rinorea niccolifera in Zambales, which is home to the famous Mt. Pinatubo. The volcano gagged 10,000,000,000 tons of magma out into the open, enriching the province's soils with enormous quantities of minerals and metals.
Full details about the Rinorea niccolifera can be found in the journal [pdf] PhytoKeys.