Using Plants to Do Our Dirty Work

Here at Cal Poly, my research lab is the greenhouse.


I am part of a project that studies the mechanisms and effectiveness of phytoremediation.  If you’re an environmental engineer, you’ve definitely heard of environmental remediation, which is the term for cleaning up contaminants in the air, water, and soil.  There are several types of environmental remediation: bioremediation, natural attenuation, and phytoremediation.  The latter stands for using plants to remediate soil, air, and/or water contaminants.

Here’s a quick science lesson.  Keep reading, I promise it’s actually really cool!  A contaminant can be remediated by a plant in 5 general ways:


(Photo Credit: Institute for Green Energy & Clean Environment)

Phytostabilization–the plant reduces the bioavailability of the contaminant in the soil

Phytostimulation–the plant stimulates microbes in the surrounding soil that break down or alter the contaminant, making it less harmful

Phytoextraction–the plant absorbs the chemical through its roots or shoots and sequesters it

Phytodegradation–the plant absorbs the chemical and then oxidizes or reduces it to a less harmful form

Phytovolatilization–the plant absorbs the chemical, possibly alters it in its roots, shoots, or foliage, and then emits it into the air in gas form

My focus this summer is to figure out which contaminants the plants volatilize.  They are grown in soil containing PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), dioxins, TPH (total petroleum hydrocarbons), PAH (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), and some heavy metals like mercury.  Therefore, we have to wear gloves when taking samples and touching the plants.  The concentrations are not high enough to hurt you unless you “eat the soil”, as my advisor Dr. Nelson put it.  I was sad to hear that no, we do not have to wear classic Breaking Bad Hazmat suits as part of our lab attire.

Here in San Luis Obispo, California, there are a lot of outdoorsy things to do.  If you walk off campus in any direction, you’re bound to encounter a mountain beckoning you to follow its steep and winding path to its peak.  My roommates and I somehow ended up at the top of Bishop’s Peak, overlooking our little city:

IMG_2549 IMG_2546


About ludevon16

I am a Lehigh University IDEAS Environmental Engineering student focusing on a mix of biology, chemistry, environmental science, and sustainability. This summer I am participating in the Low-Energy Sustainable Farming Mountaintop Project at Lehigh, after coming back from a semester abroad in Freiburg, Germany. The previous summer I participated in an REU at Cal Poly researching phytoremediation. I am passionate about environmental remediation and want to pursue a career in the field after (fingers crossed) going to grad school. I am a flautist in the LU Philharmonic Orchestra, a student tutor for orgo, a member of LU's Finest step dancing team, and an inmate tutor for the Lehigh Prison Project. I like to rock climb, run, read, and play ukulele! View all posts by ludevon16

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