The objective of our research is to screen and search for suitable plant species for phytoremediation of mercury-contaminated soil. Currently our effort is specifically focused on mercury removal from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) sites, where mercury contamination is a major concern. In order to cost effectively implement mercury remediation efforts, it is necessary now to obtain an improved understanding of biological means of removing mercury and mercury compounds. Phytoremediation is a technology that uses various plants to degrade, extract, contain, or immobilize contaminants from soil and water. In particular, phytoextraction is the uptake of contaminants by plant roots and translocation within the plants to shoots or leaves. Contaminants are generally removed by harvesting the plants. We have investigated phytoextraction of mercury from contaminated soil by using some of the known metal-accumulating plants since no natural plant species with mercury hyperaccumulating properties has yet been identified. Different natural plant species have been studied for mercury uptake, accumulation, toxicity and overall mercury removal efficiency. Various mercury compounds, such as HgS, HgCl2, and Hg(NO3)2, were used as contaminant sources. Different types of soil were examined and chosen for phytoremediation experiments. We have applied microscopy and diffuse reflectance spectrometry as well as conventional analytical chemistry to monitor the phytoremediation processes of mercury uptake, translocation and accumulation, and the physiological impact of mercury contaminants on selected plant species. Our results indicate that certain plant species, such as beard grass (Polypogon monospeliensis), accumulated a very limited amount of mercury in the shoots (<65 mg/kg), even though root mercury accumulation is significant (maximum 2298 mg/kg). Consequently, this plant species may not be suitable for mercury phytoremediation. Other plant species, such as Indian mustard (Brassica juncea), a well-studied metal accumulator, exhibited severe chlorosis symptoms during some experiments. Among all the plant species studied, Chinese brake fern (Pteris vittata) accumulated significant amount of mercury in both roots and shoots and hence may be considered as a potential candidate for mercury phytoextraction. During one experiment, Chinese brake ferns accumulated 540 mg/kg and 1469 mg/kg in shoots after 18 days of growing in soils treated with 500 parts-per-million (ppm) and 1000 ppm HgCl2 powder, respectively; no visual stress symptoms were observed. We also studied mercury phytoremediation using aged soils that contained HgS, HgCl2, or Hg(NO3)2. We have found that up to hundreds of ppm mercury can be accumulated in the roots of Indian mustard plants grown with soil contaminated by mercury sulfide; HgS is assumed to be the most stable and also the predominant mercury form in floodplain soils. We have also started to investigate different mercury uptake mechanisms, such as root uptake of soil contaminant and foliar mercury accumulation from ambient air. We have observed mercury translocation from roots to shoot for Chinese fern and two Indian mustard varieties.

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