The Hot Zone

Under higher CO2 levels, plants take up more toxic materials

Posted by Alison Hawkes on March 28, 2011
Category : Climate Science and Scientists

Higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere generally increase plant growth and productivity. Plants take up more nutrients from the soil. But according to a new study, they also take up more toxic materials from the soil.

Benjamin Duval from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and colleagues showed in a paper published this month in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that contaminants in the soil become increasingly mobile in vegetation and that these toxins could be cycling faster through the ecosystem.

“Plants can’t always distinguish toxic elements from nutrients,” Duval said in a review of his study published in Chemical & Engineering News. “For instance, arsenic can look a lot like phosphorous, which plants need for their metabolism.”

Photo: Chris Guise on Flickr

Duval and company collected soil and oak tree samples from a site at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida run by the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. They measured toxins in samples growing under normal CO2 levels and compared them to those growing at 700 parts per million CO2, roughly double the concentration. They found that concentrations of the 13 metals studied, which included lead, cadmium, and arsenic, among others, were up to twice as high in the plant materials in the elevated CO2 samples.

The researchers point out that the rates are worrisome because the toxic metals may be ingested up the food chain and can depress the decomposition rates of plant litter and hinder soil microbial activity.

The implications for people eating food crops under such a scenario is also troubling. Although, according to Duval, the current uptake of heavy metals didn’t exceed toxic thresholds set by health agencies.

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