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Plants—The Hard-Core Cleaning Machines! Heavy Metal Plants Are Hard-Core Cleaners!


ome people think playing soft, peaceful music to their plants will get them to grow taller and healthier. But don’t play that stuff around plants with names like Alpine Pennycress or Golden Tufted Madwort. They like heavy metal. In fact, they eat it up (real metal, that is, like zinc, cadmium, and nickel—not “hard rock” music).

zinc and nickel that would kill or sicken nearly all other plants. But why “hunger” for heavy metals? Rufus Chaney, an Agricultural Research Service (ARS) agronomist in Beltsville, Maryland, studies these metal-hungry plants, called “hyperaccumulators” (say, Hyper Ak-Yoom You Laters). He says, “The metal in the leaves kills chewing insects and also prevents certain plant diseases.” At polluted sites, a crop of pennycress could be grown, harvested, and then burnt to remove and recycle its stored metals. This type of plant-powered clean up is called “phytoextraction.” The cost is $250 to $1,000 per acre per year. That’s a lot cheaper than $1 million—the per-acre cost of current methods. These involve scooping up polluted soil and replacing it with clean soil. So rock on little plants! —Adapted from the ARS Science for Kids website by Jan Suszkiw, USDA, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

For further reading Durham, Sharon. “Dainty Plant Outpowers Cadmium-Contaminated Soils,” Agricultural Research magazine, USDA-ARS Information Staff, Beltsville, Maryland, September 2004, p. 22. www.ars.usda. gov/is/AR/archive/sep04/plant0904.pdf. Becker, Hank. “Phytoremediation: Using Plants To Clean Up Soils,” Agricultural Research magazine, USDA-ARS Information Staff, Beltsville, Maryland, June 2000, pp. 4−9. archive/jun00/soil0600.pdf. Comis, Donald. “Metal-Scavenging Plants to Cleanse the Soil,” Agricultural Research magazine, USDA-ARS Information Staff, Beltsville, Maryland, November 1995, pp. 4−9. is/AR/archive/nov95/cleanse1195.pdf.

QUIZ Why do these plants store heavy metals? (Pick all that apply.) A) Scientists believe it makes the plants less tasty to hungry insects. B) It makes them more valuable. C) It may help them fight off diseases. D) It prolongs their blooming season. Answer: A and C are both correct!

Long ago, European prospectors used these shrubs as a sign that metals lay hidden beneath the soil. Today, scientists want to use plants like pennycress to clean up soils contaminated with heavy metals. Landfills and old mines are two examples of such sites. Hyperaccumulator plants don’t actually eat the metals, though. Instead, they use their roots to draw in large amounts of the metals, which are then carried to the stems and leaves for storage. Pennycress may look small and dainty with its pretty white flowers. But its leaves can store toxic amounts of

Veggies with Vigor! Introduction

In this activity, you will see how plants can go from being weak without water to becoming stronger when they gain water.

Materials • Celery stalk • Disposable plastic cup • Water • Food coloring • Scissors Procedure

1. O  n a sunny day, lay the celery stalk in the sun until it is very wilted. 2. Place a little water in the bottom of the cup. Add 10–15 drops of food coloring and mix well. 3. With the assistance of an adult, carefully cut off the base of the stalk. Place the stalk in the colored water. 4. Check the celery stalk every 30 minutes for the next few hours. What happened?

Where’s the chemistry?

Celery, like all plants, is made up of cells. When its cells lose water through evaporation, celery wilts. But, when wilted celery is placed in water, the water moved up in a long series of tube-like cells inside of the stalk. Then the water moved to the rest of the cells. Once these cells are filled with water, the celery will stand straight.

Milli’s Safety Tips Safety First! ALWAYS: • Read and follow all directions for the activity. • Read all warning labels on all materials being used. • Use all materials carefully, following the directions given. • An adult must perform the portion of the activity that requires the use of scissors. • Follow safety warning or precautions, such as wearing gloves or tying back long hair. • Be sure to clean up and dispose of materials properly when you are finished with an activity. • Wash your hands well after every activity. Never eat or drink while conducting an experiment, and be careful to keep all of the materials away from your mouth, nose, and eyes!

Phytoremediation By Ludy Avila

What is phytoremediation? Phytoremediation is using plants and trees to clean up soils or water. Plants help remove heavy metals such as lead or neutralize contaminants found in the soil or water. This concept is centuries old, but humans began to apply it more widely in the late 20th century. One of the oldest forms of phytoremediation has been used by farmers. This form of phytoremediation is crop rotation. By rotating their crops, farmers are preventing the buildup of potentially hazardous substances in the soil and enriching the soil with plants like beans, which fix nitrogen in the soil to make it available to other plants. This practice has opened up the door for other forms of phytoremediation we now use today, such as using plants to pull pollutants out of the ground and water.

How does phytoremediation work? There are a number of forms of phytoremediation. Many plants are able to uptake pollutants and store them. People can plant these plants, and once they have grown and pulled the pollutants out of the soil, harvest them and dispose of them safely. This process can be used over again to reduce the level of contamination to acceptable levels. Plants can also be used to control the spread of pollution. Other plants can grow microbes, which can then metabolize pollutants. Ludy Avila is a Professor of Chemistry for the Department of Physical Sciences and Engineering at South Texas College in McAllen, Texas and a member of the ACS Committee on Community Activities.

What are the most common plants used for phytoremediation? Alfalfa, poplar, junipers, sunflowers, cabbage, and mustard plants, to name a few, have been used successfully in phytoremediation projects. Some of these plants have been used to clean up soils contaminated with pesticides and heavy metals. Many researchers are in the process of finding more plants that can be used for cleaning up other contaminants in both soils and water.

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of using phytoremediation? Some of the advantages of phytoremediation are that it is cost effective, environmentally friendly, and low maintenance; that it does not involve expensive equipment; that it can be used on large areas of soil; and that remediation sites look nicer. Some of the disadvantages are that it is slower than conventional methods, especially if the site has high concentrations of contaminants, and that some plants only grow in certain climates.

From Grass to Soil—Let Microbes Toil! Introduction

Where’s the chemistry?

What do you think happens to grass clippings after they are cut and fall onto the ground? Do this activity and you will find out what happens.

Have you ever heard of a compost pile? In this activity, that is what you have made— compost! In a compost pile, dead plant material and soil are combined and kept moist. Tiny organisms (microorganisms) in the soil begin to eat the plant material, causing it to break down, or decompose. The decomposed plant material and the wastes in the microorganisms add nutrients to the soil. In fact, gardeners often use compost as a natural fertilizer for growing plants.

Materials • 3 cups of grass clippings • 2 plastic Ziplock bags • 1 cup of potting soil • Pencil (sharpened) • Teaspoon • Water Procedure

1. P  lace one handful of grass clippings in each of the two plastic bags. 2. In one bag, add a cup of fresh potting soil and mix it together well. In the other bag, leave the clippings as they are. Seal both bags. 3. With a pencil, carefully poke 5−10 air holes in each side of the plastic bags. Be careful not to poke yourself. 4. P  lace the bags in a dark place. Once each week, open the bags and add a teaspoon of water. After one week open the bags and look inside. Look closely at the grass. Aside from being dirty in the soil bag, does the grass in either bag look like it changed from when you put it in? 5. After another week, look closely again at the grass in the two bags. What has happened to the grass that was in the soil? What happened to the grass without soil? Continue observing for the next few weeks.


Use Milli’s Safety Tips when doing this activity.

Ask yourself…

What happens out in the woods? What happens to all of the leaves that fall year after year? Do the leaves that fall on the ground just keep getting deeper and deeper?

Defensive Plants Make Medicines By Margareta Séquin


lants are very good at defending themselves. They need to be, as they have to be able to stay alive in hot or cold weather and sometimes have to survive months without rain. But above all, they need to defend themselves against small and large animals that want to eat them. A plant is pretty much stuck in place with its roots and cannot move to another place if its life is in danger. So, why are plants still alive and not all eaten up? Plants have excellent ways to defend themselves. Some plants have sharp thorns and tough skins. And many plants have developed lots of powerful chemical compounds in their roots, leaves, and other plant parts. Some examples include morphine from the opium poppy, nicotine from the tobacco plant, or bitter quinine from the bark of the tropical cinchona tree. Animals do not like to eat such plants. If they try, they become very ill or may even die. People have known about many of these potent plant defenses since ancient times. While some plant materials are harmful to animals and humans, people have found ways to use small quantities of these substances as medicines to help us fight against our own diseases. A large number of medicines that we buy today in a pharmacy or a drug store have their origins in defensive plant substances. A famous story about a medicine that originally came from a plant is about aspirin, the common pain killer. Aspirin is related to the chemical compound salicylic acid, which is found in the bark of willow plants. Salicylic acid is quite acidic and leads to an upset stomach when eaten. This makes it a good defense against animals that want to chew on willow branches. Long ago native people found out that chewing willow bark lowered their fever when they were sick. But they did not like the stomachaches they were getting. In later times, chemists figured out ways to change the structure of salicylic acid molecules somewhat. These methods transformed salicylic acid into aspirin, which is better tolerated by our stomachs. Morphine is a very strong plant chemical. If used in tiny amounts, it is still the most powerful painkiller that we know. Bitter quinine from the bark of a tropical tree has helped people to fight the disease malaria. Atropine from the belladonna plant can be used in very small amounts in eye medicine. And scientists keep finding new plant medicines. One of the latest ones is taxol, from the bark of the Pacific yew

Activities Grow your own herb garden. Pick up a package of seeds of oregano, thyme, or basil, and grow your own “antioxidants”! Visit a botanical garden and find out if they have a section on medicinal plants. They probably do! An interesting book: Judith Sumner, The Natural History of Medicinal Plants, Timber Press 2000.

tree. While the compound taxol protects yew trees from being eaten or from getting sick, taxol has recently been found to be a medicine that cures some types of cancer in human beings. Plants also have gentle defenses to protect them against being eaten by animals. You may have heard of the succulent plant aloe vera. When a leaf blade of aloe is cut open, a yellow sap oozes out. An animal that tries to bite into such a leaf would hate this sap. On the other hand, people have used the aloe for hundreds of years to treat burns and many other ailments. Strong odors in leaves are another form of plant defense. Think of herbs like mint, sage, or rosemary. While we might like a few leaves in our food, would you like to eat an entire salad of mint, sage, or bay leaves? I think not! An animal does not like to munch on a sage or mint plant either. Herbs and spices have been used since ancient times. Nowadays, we use them mainly for their taste and smell. But many herbs have originally been used as medicines. Herbs like thyme, basil, or oregano contain many antioxidants, substances that can trap harmful substances in our body. Another example is the spice cloves, which we may like in hot cider or with certain meats. But an extract of cloves is also a mild painkiller and is still used by dentists as a nice-smelling lotion to make our gums numb. In former times, some herbs and spices with strong tastes and smells were actually used to cover up the unpleasant smell and bad taste of spoiled food! Plants are amazing machines. By making complex chemical compounds that help them to defend themselves and to stay alive, they supply us with many medicines that help people in the fight against diseases. Let us protect plants and learn much more about them, so that we can collect even more knowledge on plant medicines. Margareta Séquin is a Professor of Chemistry for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at San Francisco State University.

Plants—The Green Machines! Plants—The Green Machines! Word Search

Plants—The Green Machines! Word Scramble


Answers 1. Respiration 2. Chlorophyll 3. Agronomist 4. Hyperaccumulators 5. Pennycress 6. Phytoremediation 7. Pollutants 8. Energy 9. Fossil Fuels

Agronomist Antioxidants Aspirin Biofuel

Biomass Cellulose Chlorophyll Hyperaccumulators

Medicines Photosynthesis Phytoremediation Pollutants

10. Photosynthesis 11. Biomass 12. Biofuel 13. Cellulose 14. Fermentation 15. Medicines 16. Aspirin 17. Taxol 18. Antioxidants

Chemists Celebrate Earth Day 2010 - supplementary article