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New plant protein discoveries could provide a cost effective approach for toxic metal removal and remediation of heavy metal-laden soils and waters - oh and ease global food and fuel demands

UCSD Superfund Research Center -- New discoveries of the way plants transport important substances across their biological membranes to resist toxic metals and pests, increase salt and drought tolerance, control water loss and store sugar can have profound implications for increasing the supply of food and energy for our rapidly growing global population.

That’s the conclusion of 12 leading plant biologists from around the world whose laboratories together with others have recently discovered important properties of plant transport proteins that, collectively, could have a profound impact on global agriculture. They report in the May 2nd issue of the journal Nature that the application of their findings could help the world meet its increasing demand for safe and sustainable food and fuel as the global population grows from seven billion people to an estimated nine billion by 2050.

These membrane transporters are a class of specialized proteins that plants use to take up nutrients but also toxic metals from the soil and mediate resistance toxic substances like heavy metals, salt and aluminum,” said Julian Schroeder, senior author and professor of biology at UC San Diego who brought together 11 other scientists from Australia, Japan, Mexico, Taiwan, the U.S. and the U.K. to collaborate on a paper describing how their discoveries collectively could be used to enhance safe and sustainable food and fuel production.

Schroeder is one of the principle investigators in UCSD’s large, multidisciplinary Superfund Research Center (SRC) funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (2012-2017). The SRC has a twofold objective: (1) generate new perspectives on the molecular and genetic basis of the biological effects of toxicant exposure, and (2) develop new models for the detection and bioremediation of chemical toxicants found at Superfund sites. For the SRC, one of Schroeder’s aims is to better understand the potential of using plants for bioremediation of arsenic and cadmium.

The 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.  Schroeder’s lab has identified key mechanisms by which plants accumulate, transport and detoxify heavy metals by combining genomic, genetic, biochemical and physiological approaches. Understanding the control of heavy metal accumulation and distribution in roots and shoots is critical for engineering of plants for bioremediation and for reduced accumulation in edible tissues of crop plants. Schroeder and his lab members are working closely with the SRC’s Research Translation Core and Community Engagement Core to share research findings for their potential in addressing these acute problems. 

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