Fields of native flowers may soon become high tech nanoparticle factories if a team of scientists in the United Kingdom succeeds in using plants to extract soil pollutants which bacteria will then process into useful materials.

“We hope to demonstrate feasibility of the approach, and implementation of the nanoparticles in specific applications within three years with industrial adoption envisaged very quickly afterward,” lead researcher on the project Kerry Kirwan of the University of Warwick told Discovery News.


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Some plants, the flower Alyssum for example, naturally draw certain chemicals, such as arsenic and platinum, from the soil. The plants concentrate the chemicals in their tissues, which makes them naturals at reclaiming polluted land.

The project, led by the University of Warwick, hopes to make use of this biological phenomenon to not only cleanse soils, but turn the growing plants into manufacturing plants. Bacteria will be engineered to harvest the desired chemicals from the plants then create nanoparticles that can be used in catalytic converters, cancer treatments and other applications. Together the bacteria and plants will become biofactories.

“The biofactories are a combination of bacteria that actually harvest the metals from the plants and create the nanoparticulate shells, along with a suitable biorefinery that provides the correct conditions for this to happen,” said Kiwan.

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The biorefineries will also provide the conditions necessary for extracting other high value compounds directly from the plants. The bacteria will be contained in a fully enclosed system to prevent their accidental release into the environment. The faunal factories, however, may help to restore native plant communities.

“We have access to a global dataset of plant/crop genetics and capabilities that will allow us to identify suitable native species,” said Kiwan, “One key aspect is to ensure that no impacts on localized biodiversity occur.”


Alyssum montanum (KENPEI, Wikimedia Commons)