Soaking Up Lead

Water contaminated with lead is hazardous to human health, particularly for children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency agree that there is no known safe level of lead in a child's blood. In children it can lead to behavior and learning issues, stunted grown, and anemia. Lead can also cause premature birth and reduced fetus growth in pregnant women, and decrease kidney function in adults. But removing lead from polluted water sources can be challenging.

Now, a team of researchers from the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science in Japan has discovered that a type of moss called Funaria hygrometrica, or bonfire moss, can help to absorb the heavy metal from contaminated water. The team discovered that the moss could absorb up to 74 percent of its dry weight in lead after only 22 hours of exposure, and published their findings in the journal PLOS One. This discovery could go a long way to help clean lead polluted water supplies around the world.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons/Frank Vincentz.

The researchers also found that 85 percent of the lead that the moss had absorbed accumulated in its cell walls. They determined there was something unique about the moss' cell walls, which is likely what allows the species to thrive in toxic environment where other plants can't.

Using mosses or other plants to remove contaminants like this is called phytoremediation, and other researchers are looking for similar ways to use organisms to combat pollutants. Three strains of fungus can reduce electronic waste from old batteries. Another fungus can break down waste plastics in a matter of weeks that would otherwise persist in the environment for years.

In a press release, the group lead Hitoshi Sakakibara said that the next step for his team is looking to work with recycling-oriented companies, creating applications for this new biomaterial that can soak up lead.

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