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May 10, 2014 10:21 AM EDT

New Species Of Metal-Eating Plant Discovered

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A new plant species with an unusual lifestyle - it eats nickel for a living - has been discovered, according to a recent study.

Scientists from the University of the Philippines, Los Baños have discovered Rinorea niccolifera, a plant species that accumulates up to 18,000 ppm of the metal in its leaves without poisoning itself, according to Edwino Fernando, lead author of the report and professor, said in a statement.

The new species was discovered on the western part of Luzon Island in the Philippines, an area known for soils rich in heavy metals.

Nickel hyperaccumulation is such a rare phenomenon with only about 0.5 to 1 percent of plant species native to nickel-rich soils having been recorded to exhibit the ability. Throughout the world, only about 450 species are known with this unusual trait, which is still a small proportion of the estimated 300,000 species of vascular plants.

"Hyperacccumulator plants have great potentials for the development of green technologies, for example, 'phytoremediation' and 'phytomining'," Dr. Augustine Doronila, co-author of the study and professor at the School of Chemistry, University of Melbourne, said in a statement.

Researchers explained that phytoremediation refers to the use of hyperacccumulator plants to remove heavy metals in contaminated soils. Phytomining, on the other hand, is the use of hyperacccumulator plants to grow and harvest in order to recover commercially valuable metals in plant shoots from metal-rich sites.

The field surveys and laboratory work of the scientists are part of the research project funded by the Department of Science and Technology -- Philippine Council for Industry, Energy, and Emerging Technology Research and Development (DOST-PCIEERD).

The findings were recently published in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

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