Phytoremediation: Nature’s healing power
Areas that have been devastated by man-made disasters, such as a chemical spills or even nuclear incidents, are often written off as unfit for further use and left barren and abandoned. But does this necessarily have to be the case?
Dr Megan Phillips, an Environmental Scientists from the UTS School of Life Sciences, believes there are alternatives. She’s conducting ground-breaking research exploring how native Australian flora can be used to clean up contaminated sites.
"It's a biotechnology called ’phytoremediation‘ and it harnesses natural plant processes to make contaminated regions safe again," said Dr Phillips.
"I'm using native Australian plants because, in general for Australia, we have strong seasonal heatwaves, nutrient-poor soils, and sporadic rainfall—a recipe for most non-native plants to struggle to survive.
“Our native plants are pre-adapted to our harsher environmental conditions [and are] much more likely to endure in the long term if we plant them in contaminated regions."
It's already well known that plants can play an important role in land management and recovery. Dr Phillips cites the case of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station explosion that resulted in radioactive fallout over a large geographical area. Subsequent research showed that sunflowers were able to “soak up” radionuclides.
Similarly, the Indian Mustard plant can accumulate heavy metals from polluted soils.
However, there is a notable lack of knowledge when it comes to the phytoremediation potential and capability of native plants, and this is what Dr Phillips' research is focussing on.
“This is such an exciting area of research because in addition to their effectiveness as a biotechnology, it's also known that plants can decontaminate areas safely, with minimal invasive disturbance to the community and native species,” Dr Phillips said.
“It is also incredibly cost-effective. It can be up to ten times cheaper to implement compared to hiring an excavator, digging out a contaminated site and moving the waste to landfill.”
But Phytoremediation is used far less in Australia as a land management tool, compared to overseas counties, such as the Brownfields Initiative in the USA.
“There are huge success stories already overseas with phytoremediation working at a large scale, such as former air fields and industrial sites,” Dr Phillips said.
"It's a biotechnology that has a lot of promise for real-world application, so potentially this could become part of the normal way we manage contaminated land in the future.
“I'm hoping our work will uncover new plant species better suited to our landscapes, that are up to the task of making our contaminated areas safer for the community and wildlife alike."
Dr Phillip and her team will complete the research project in November and are planning to publish their findings.
Megan Phillips - UTS Environmental Biology
[Shot of UTS tour Building, panning to shot of Megan on science building roof]
Hi, you made it- thanks so much for coming! If you’d like to follow me.
Text: The Graduate Tour Botanical Science
[Camera fast-forwarded following Megan walking across roof]
Hey you’ll need one of these
[Megan hands interviewer lab coat]
[Interviewer]: Thank you
You’re welcome and here’s my research greenhouse
[Camera follows Megan into greenhouse which shows various potted plants]
[Interviewer]: Well this is impressive
[Interviewer]: So environmental biology- what is that?
So environmental biology is the study of the natural world so it can be anything from ecosystems and global patterns right down to microscopic cellular organisms
[Interviewer]: Right, so why is that important?
Well a lot of people really like “whys” but I’m really interested in the “hows” and how things work, so environmental biology basically explores how things work together in nature and from that you can get things like solar panels and water purification.
[Interviewer]: So what’s one thing I wouldn’t know about botanical science?
Would you like some plant trivia?
Okay so, the fastest growing plant that we know of is a species of bamboo and it can grow up to 90cm in a single day.
[Interviewer]: So what are you working on here?
This is a phytoremediation experiment, so I’m looking at plants that can extract contaminants from surface landscapes.
[Interviewer]: And if you had to simplify that a little bit more?
Okay so basically what I’m interested in is measuring how plants can absorb nasty things like heavy metals and petroleum hydrocarbons from soils and then you have a look at the effects of the contaminants on the plants. So if you want to have a look at this leaf for example, can you see all those little yellow spots there?
That’s basically where there’s a lot of contaminant in that leaf and it’s starting to show signs of distress and it might die and drop off in a couple of days.
[Interviewer]: Wow, so what did you study?
I studied environmental biology and followed it up with a PhD in invasive plants
[Interviewer]: I’m guessing you studied all three sciences in high school.
I did, so I studied geography and chemistry and biology.
[Interviewer]: And what’s a misconception about science?
I think a lot of people think that science is laboratories and Bunsen burners and that’s all it is, but there’s actually a lot of travel involved and you can see a lot of the world depending on what you’re doing so a lot of my work as a botanist is in forests, but I’ve also measure coral species and fish on the Great Barrier Reef and a pod of whales swam by while we were doing that- it was magnificent.
[Interviewer]: Well thank you so much for giving us a tour, we’ll show ourselves out!
My pleasure, thanks for coming!
[camera fast-forwards exiting greenhouse]