Phytoremediation (from the Ancient Greek φυτο (phyto, plant), and Latin remedium (restoring balance or remediation) describes the treatment of environmental problems (bioremediation) through the use of plants that mitigate the environmental problem without the need to excavate the contaminant material and dispose of it elsewhere.

Phytoremediation consists of mitigating pollutant concentrations in contaminated soils, water, or air, with plants able to contain, degrade, or eliminate metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives, crude oil and its derivatives, and various other contaminants from the media that contain them.



Phytoremediation may be applied wherever the soil or static water environment has become polluted or is suffering ongoing chronic pollution. Examples where phytoremediation has been used successfully include the restoration of abandoned metal-mine workings, reducing the impact of sites where polychlorinated biphenyls have been dumped during manufacture and mitigation of on-going coal mine discharges.

Phytoremediation refers to the natural ability of certain plants called hyperaccumulators to bioaccumulate, degrade,or render harmless contaminants in soils, water, or air. Contaminants such as metals, pesticides, solvents, explosives[1], and crude oil and its derivatives, have been mitigated in phytoremediation projects worldwide. Many plants such as mustard plants, alpine pennycress and pigweed have proven to be successful at hyperaccumulating contaminants at toxic waste sites.

Phytoremediation is considered a clean, cost-effective and non-environmentally disruptive technology, as opposed to mechanical cleanup methods such as soil excavation or pumping polluted groundwater. Over the past 20 years, this technology has become increasingly popular and has been employed at sites with soils contaminated with lead, uranium, and arsenic. However, one major disadvantage of phytoremediation is that it requires a long-term commitment, as the process is dependent on plant growth, tolerance to toxicity, and bioaccumulation capacity.

Advantages and limitations

  • Advantages:
    • the cost of the phytoremediation is lower than that of traditional processes both in situ and ex situ
    • the plants can be easily monitored
    • the possibility of the recovery and re-use of valuable metals (by companies specializing in “phyto mining”)
    • it is potentially the least harmful method because it uses naturally occurring organisms and preserves the environment in a more natural state.
  • Limitations:
    • phytoremediation is limited to the surface area and depth occupied by the roots.
    • slow growth and low biomass require a long-term commitment
    • with plant-based systems of remediation, it is not possible to completely prevent the leaching of contaminants into the groundwater (without the complete removal of the contaminated ground, which in itself does not resolve the problem of contamination)
    • the survival of the plants is affected by the toxicity of the contaminated land and the general condition of the soil.
    • bio-accumulation of contaminants, especially metals, into the plants which then pass into the food chain, from primary level consumers upwards or requires the safe disposal of the affected plant material.

Various phytoremediation processes

A range of processes mediated by plants or algae are useful in treating environmental problems:

  • Phytoextraction — uptake and concentration of substances from the environment into the plant biomass.
  • Phytostabilization — reducing the mobility of substances in the environment, for example, by limiting the leaching of substances from the soil.
  • Phytotransformation — chemical modification of environmental substances as a direct result of plant metabolism, often resulting in their inactivation, degradation (phytodegradation), or immobilization (phytostabilization).
  • Phytostimulation — enhancement of soil microbial activity for the degradation of contaminants, typically by organisms that associate with roots. This process is also known as rhizosphere degradation. Phytostimulation can also involve aquatic plants supporting active populations of microbial degraders, as in the stimulation of atrazine degradation by hornwort.[2]
  • Phytovolatilization — removal of substances from soil or water with release into the air, sometimes as a result of phytotransformation to more volatile and/or less polluting substances.
  • Rhizofiltration — filtering water through a mass of roots to remove toxic substances or excess nutrients. The pollutants remain absorbed in or absorbed to the roots.


Phytoextraction (or phytoaccumulation) uses plants or algae to remove contaminants from soils, sediments or water into harvestable plant biomass (organisms that take larger-than-normal amounts of contaminants from the soil are called hyperaccumulators). Phytoextraction has been growing rapidly in popularity worldwide for the last twenty years or so. In general, this process has been tried more often for extracting heavy metals than for organics. At the time of disposal, contaminants are typically concentrated in the much smaller volume of the plant matter than in the initially contaminated soil or sediment. 'Mining with plants', or phytomining, is also being experimented with.

The plants absorb contaminants through the root system and store them in the root biomass and/or transport them up into the stems and/or leaves. A living plant may continue to absorb contaminants until it is harvested. After harvest, a lower level of the contaminant will remain in the soil, so the growth/harvest cycle must usually be repeated through several crops to achieve a significant cleanup. After the process, the cleaned soil can support other vegetation.

Advantages: The main advantage of phytoextraction is environmental friendliness. Traditional methods that are used for cleaning up heavy metal-contaminated soil disrupt soil structure and reduce soil productivity, whereas phytoextraction can clean up the soil without causing any kind of harm to soil quality. Another benefit of phytoextraction is that it is less expensive than any other clean-up process.

Disadvantages: As this process is controlled by plants, it takes more time than anthropogenic soil clean-up methods.

Two versions of phytoextraction:

  • natural hyper-accumulation, where plants naturally take up the contaminants in soil unassisted, and
  • induced or assisted hyper-accumulation, in which a conditioning fluid containing a chelator or another agent is added to soil to increase metal solubility or mobilization so that the plants can absorb them more easily. In many cases natural hyperaccumulators are metallophyte plants that can tolerate and incorporate high levels of toxic metals.

Examples of phytoextraction (see also 'Table of hyperaccumulators'):

  • Arsenic, using the Sunflower (Helianthus annuus), or the Chinese Brake fern (Pteris vittata), a hyperaccumulator. Chinese Brake fern stores arsenic in its leaves.
  • Cadmium, using Willow (Salix viminalis): In 1999, one research experiment performed by Maria Greger and Tommy Landberg suggested Willow (Salix viminlais) has a significant potential as a phytoextractor of Cadmium (Cd), Zinc (Zn), and Copper (Cu), as willow has some specific characteristics like high transport capacity of heavy metals from root to shoot and huge amount of biomass production; can be used also for production of bio energy in the biomass energy power plant.[3]
  • Cadmium and zinc, using Alpine pennycress (Thlaspi caerulescens), a hyperaccumulator of these metals at levels that would be toxic to many plants. On the other hand, the presence of copper seems to impair its growth (see table for reference).


Phytostabilization focuses on long-term stabilization and containment of the pollutant. Example, the plant's presence can reduce wind erosion; or the plant's roots can prevent water erosion, immobilize the pollutants by adsorption or accumulation, and provide a zone around the roots where the pollutant can precipitate and stabilize. Unlike phytoextraction, phytostabilization focuses mainly on sequestering pollutants in soil near the roots but not in plant tissues. Pollutants become less bioavailable, and livestock, wildlife, and human exposure is reduced. An example application of this sort is using a vegetative cap to stabilize and contain mine tailings.[6]


In the case of organic pollutants, such as pesticides, explosives, solvents, industrial chemicals, and other xenobiotic substances, certain plants, such as Cannas, render these substances non-toxic by their metabolism. In other cases, microorganisms living in association with plant roots may metabolize these substances in soil or water. These complex and recalcitrant compounds cannot be broken down to basic molecules (water, carbon-dioxide, etc.) by plant molecules, and, hence, the term phytotransformation represents a change in chemical structure without complete breakdown of the compound. The term "Green Liver Model" is used to describe phytotransformation, as plants behave analogously to the human liver when dealing with these xenobiotic compounds(foreign compound/pollutant).[7] After uptake of the xenobiotics, plant enzymes increase the polarity of the xenobiotics by adding functional groups such as hydroxyl groups (-OH).

This is known as Phase I metabolism, similar to the way that the human liver increases the polarity of drugs and foreign compounds (Drug Metabolism). Whereas in the human liver enzymes such as Cytochrome P450s are responsible for the initial reactions, in plants enzymes such as nitroreductases carry out the same role.

In the second stage of phytotransformation, known as Phase II metabolism, plant biomolecules such as glucose and amino acids are added to the polarized xenobiotic to further increase the polarity (known as conjugation). This is again similar to the processes occurring in the human liver where glucuronidation (addition of glucose molecules by the UGT (e.g. UGT1A1) class of enzymes) and glutathione addition reactions occur on reactive centres of the xenobiotic.

Phase I and II reactions serve to increase the polarity and reduce the toxicity of the compounds, although many exceptions to the rule are seen. The increased polarity also allows for easy transport of the xenobiotic along aqueous channels.

In the final stage of phytotransformation (Phase III metabolism), a sequestration of the xenobiotic occurs within the plant. The xenobiotics polymerize in a lignin-like manner and develop a complex structure that is sequestered in the plant. This ensures that the xenobiotic is safely stored, and does not affect the functioning of the plant. However, preliminary studies have shown that these plants can be toxic to small animals (such as snails), and, hence, plants involved in phytotransformation may need to be maintained in a closed enclosure.

Hence, the plants reduce toxicity (with exceptions) and sequester the xenobiotics in phytotransformation. Trinitrotoluene phytotransformation has been extensively researched and a transformation pathway has been proposed.[8]

The role of genetics

Breeding programs and genetic engineering are powerful methods for enhancing natural phytoremediation capabilities, or for introducing new capabilities into plants. Genes for phytoremediation may originate from a micro-organism or may be transferred from one plant to another variety better adapted to the environmental conditions at the cleanup site. For example, genes encoding a nitroreductase from a bacterium were inserted into tobacco and showed faster removal of TNT and enhanced resistance to the toxic effects of TNT.[9] Researchers have also discovered a mechanism in plants that allows them to grow even when the pollution concentration in the soil is lethal for non-treated plants. Some natural, biodegradable compounds, such as exogenous polyamines, allow the plants to tolerate concentrations of pollutants 500 times higher than untreated plants, and to absorb more pollutants.

Hyperaccumulators and biotic interactions

A plant is said to be a hyperaccumulator if it can concentrate the pollutants in a minimum percentage which varies according to the pollutant involved (for example: more than 1000 mg/kg of dry weight for nickel, copper, cobalt, chromium or lead; or more than 10,000 mg/kg for zinc or manganese).[10] This capacity for accumulation is due to hypertolerance, or phytotolerance: the result of adaptative evolution from the plants to hostile environments through many generations. A number of interactions may be affected by metal hyperaccumulation, including protection, interferences with neighbour plants of different species, mutualism (including mycorrhizae, pollen and seed dispersal), commensalism, and biofilm.

Table of hyperaccumulators

See also


  1. ^ [ Phytoremediation of soils using Ralstonia eutropha, Pseudomas tolaasi, Burkholderia fungorum reported by Sofie Thijs
  2. ^ Rupassara, S. I.; Larson, R. A.; Sims, G. K. & Marley, K. A. (2002), "Degradation of Atrazine by Hornwort in Aquatic Systems", Bioremediation Journal 6 (3): 217–224, doi:10.1080/10889860290777576 .
  3. ^ Greger, M. & Landberg, T. (1999), "Using of Willow in Phytoextraction", International Journal of Phytoremediation 1 (2): 115–123, doi:10.1080/15226519908500010 .
  4. ^ Adler, Tina (July 20, 1996). "Botanical cleanup crews: using plants to tackle polluted water and soil". Science News.;col1. Retrieved 2010-09-03. 
  5. ^ Meagher, RB (2000), "Phytoremediation of toxic elemental and organic pollutants", Current Opinion in Plant Biology 3 (2): 153–162, doi:10.1016/S1369-5266(99)00054-0, PMID 10712958. 
  6. ^ Mendez MO, Maier RM (2008), "Phytostabilization of Mine Tailings in Arid and Semiarid Environments—An Emerging Remediation Technology", Environ Health Perspect 116 (3): 278–83, doi:10.1289/ehp.10608, PMC 2265025, PMID 18335091, 
  7. ^ Burken, J.G. (2004), "2. Uptake and Metabolism of Organic Compounds: Green-Liver Model", in McCutcheon, S.C.; Schnoor, J.L., Phytoremediation: Transformation and Control of Contaminants, A Wiley-Interscience Series of Texts and Monographs, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley, pp. 59, doi:10.1002/047127304X.ch2, ISBN 0471394351, 
  8. ^ Subramanian, Murali; Oliver, David J. & Shanks, Jacqueline V. (2006), "TNT Phytotransformation Pathway Characteristics in Arabidopsis: Role of Aromatic Hydroxylamines", Biotechnol. Prog. 22 (1): 208–216, doi:10.1021/bp050241g, PMID 16454512 .
  9. ^ Hannink, N.; Rosser, S. J.; French, C. E.; Basran, A.; Murray, J. A.; Nicklin, S.; Bruce, N. C. (2001), "Phytodetoxification of TNT by transgenic plants expressing a bacterial nitroreductase", Nature Biotechnology 19 (12): 1168–72, doi:10.1038/nbt1201-1168, PMID 11731787 .
  10. ^ Baker, A. J. M.; Brooks, R. R. (1989), "Terrestrial higher plants which hyperaccumulate metallic elements – A review of their distribution, ecology and phytochemistry", Biorecovery 1 (2): 81–126 .


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