Calling on Mother Nature as Witness and Engineer: Phytoforensics and More
Wednesday, September 11, 2013
Joel Burken, PhD
Associate Chair and Professor
Director, Environmental Research Center
Missouri University of Science & Technology
Abstract: Plants interact intimately with their environment. Although stationary, plants are masters of mass transfer and extract water, nutrients, carbon, oxygen and all that is needed to be the dominant terrestrial, multicellular biomass on earth. Plants concurrently change their environment while collecting and storeing chemicals and elements from the surrounding water, air, and soil in the environment, all by harnessing the energy of the sun and wind. Fundamental breakthroughs in understanding plant-contaminant interactions have led to novel approaches that now being used in the new field of Phytoforensics as well as phytoremediation. Recent breakthroughs range from analytic chemistry to fundamental organic molecule fate at the biotic/abiotic interface, such as an improved understanding of how organic molecules can transport across root membranes.
The primary and most diverse advancements leading to phytoforensic applications are novel sampling and chemical analysis techniques developed at S&T. Methods have been developed that can assess contaminants in-planta, offering not just screening, but long-term monitoring possibilities for solvents, hydrocarbons and also energetics such as RDX, HMX, Perchlorate. Patented methods of placing sampling devices in-planta offer a new chemical monitoring paradigm that has never been available or considered. Now we have data on contaminants in the otherwise obscured subsurface environment can be gathered to help in contaminated-site delineations that are too often costly and inaccurate, thereby improving remediation efficacy and protecting human health.
The same processes are applied proactively in engineered natural systems that are not only effective at meeting treatment targets, but also offer biomass and fiber resources, habitat and ecosystem services, as well as recreation and aesthetic benefits. Plants can be used for a wide range of environmental applications if understood. We have just never tried to ‘listen to the trees’ regarding the contaminants in our environment, nor have we learned to ask Mother Nature to help fix the problems.