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Exotic Plant Absorbs Arsenic From Ground

Sometime within the next year, researchers may have a way to get arsenic out of the ground, thanks to a subtropical fern.

Arsenic

Photo: Bob Bird, UF News Bureau

Chinese brake ferns are unusual in their ability to remove arsenic, a deadly metal, from the soil. University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Science researchers are developing ways to use the ferms to clean up contaminated landscapes.

The government is under pressure from consumer reports to regulate how much arsenic, a poison, is allowed in the rice we eat, but this point might be moot thanks to some exotic plant research.

Jody Banks is a botany professor at Purdue, and she says sometime within the next year they may have a way to get arsenic out of the ground, thanks to a subtropical fern. Banks says this particular fern loves arsenic, to the point where it will not only take it out of the ground, but it will hold that arsenic in its leaves while it thrives.

“We could help get rid of the arsenic, any arsenic contamination in soil,” she says. “So wood treatment plants for example, used to use arsenic… as a preservative of wood, so there are some areas that are heavily contaminated with arsenic from wood treatment.”

The timeline on this project is still uncertain, but Banks says they think they might know which gene is responsible for the plant‘s resistance to arsenic.

“We have a potential candidate gene and now we have to test it a little more thoroughly, and then if it turns out to do what we think it might, then it would be great,” she says.

Arsenic isn‘t just found in rice. About a year ago, arsenic in apples and apple juice was widely publicized, although no dangerous health affects were linked to that finding.

Arsenic used to be popular in pesticides, and it‘s also naturally occurring in soil. The FDA isn‘t expected to have any study on arsenic levels in rice released until the end of the year at the earliest.

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