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Your Environment. Your Health.

University of California-San Diego

Superfund Research Program

Molecular Mechanisms of Heavy Metal Detoxification and Accumulation in Plants

Project Leader: Julian I. Schroeder
Grant Number: P42ES010337
Funding Period: 2000-2017

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Project Summary (2005-2010)

Soils and waters with high levels of toxic heavy metals such as cadmium, arsenic, lead and mercury are detrimental to human and environmental health. These 4 metal(loid)s are among the Superfund's top 7 priority hazardous substances. Recent research and applications indicate that uptake of heavy metals into plants via the root system and accumulation of heavy metals in plant shoots could provide a cost effective approach for toxic metal removal and remediation of heavy metal-laden soils and waters. However many genes, mechanisms and pathways that function in heavy metal over-accumulation in plants remain to be identified and characterized. Phytochelatins are major heavy metal and metalloid chelating and detoxifying thiolate peptides in plants. In recent research Dr. Schroeder’s research team has made advances at understanding mechanisms that contribute to heavy metal detoxification and transport in plants, including isolation of phytochelatin synthase genes, characterization of mechanisms for root to shoot transfer of cadmium, isolation of heavy metal accumulation Arabidopsis mutants, development of a novel microarray-based rapid mutant cloning approach and microarray-based identification of putative transporter genes that may contribute to heavy metal transport. Project researchers are testing the hypotheses:

  1. That phytochelatins affect long distance root to leaf vascular transport of toxic metals;
  2. That characterization of new toxic metal accumulation mutants will lead to identification of rate-limiting steps that function in plant heavy metal accumulation;
  3. that heavy metal sensing and signal transduction mechanisms in plants are important for plant heavy metal resistance and accumulation.

To test these hypotheses the research team is taking the following approaches:

  1. Characterizing novel physiological and molecular mechanisms of root to shoot transport of heavy metals and phytochelatins using physiological, genomic, biochemical and membrane transport analyses.
  2. Pursuing a new high throughput screening approach in collaborative research, the team has identified Arabidopsis mutants that affect the accumulation of toxic metals in leaves. A newly developed genomic microarray-based rapid mutant mapping and cloning approach is being used to isolate selected heavy metal accumulation mutant genes and characterize the underlying mechanisms.
  3. Characterizing heavy metal biosensing and transduction mechanisms in plants using a luciferase reporter screen.
  4. Conducting trials with contaminated soils from Superfund sites in collaboration with Edenspace Corp, to assess the feasibility of monitoring bioavailable heavy metals and of hyperaccumulating heavy metals and metalloids into plant roots and shoots using transgenic and mutant plants generated in this research.
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