How Plants Can Save the Niger Delta

The Niger Delta has been severly polluted from petroleum and industrial contamination, and all the cleaning techniques used until now have proven to be inefficient. Scientist Eucharia Nwaichi will be looking into living plants to find new ways to save the Delta.

Eucharia Nwaichi believes strongly in the importance of targeting her research to a specific need, whether driven by industry or by society.

Her latest research challenge is spurred by concern for the future of the Niger Delta region of Nigeria which is threatened with severe pollution from petroleum and other industrial contamination that leaves precious agricultural land unfit for use.

The most toxic chemicals, including heavy metals such as copper and arsenic, risk entering the food chain with subsequent catastrophic effects on human health.

Traditional methods of cleaning up petroleum pollution, such as excavation, can be very expensive. Bioremediation, which uses microorganisms to degrade the pollutants, provides a cheaper and more environmentally friendly approach.

Unfortunately, some contaminants are so tightly bound to the soil elements that they resist attack by microorganisms, leaving soils with persistent heavy metal pollution. Eucharia believes that phytoremediation, which uses living plants rather than microorganisms, could provide a viable solution to this problem. Plants can rid the soil of pollutants either by chemically transforming them into less harmful metabolites or by chemically binding inside the plant’s own tissues, most often in the root system as part of the symbiotic relationship with soil fungi. Eucharia has chosen to test the potential of two local plants, Bambara bean and Lemon grass, for cleaning up a crude oil-contaminated site in the Delta. Using soil samples extracted from the site, she will plant seedlings of each species. Once they are established, Eucharia will proceed with a range of analytical tests at the Institute of Agrophysics in Lublin, Poland, to establish how well they grow in oil-contaminated soil and their capacity to take up and store the contaminants. She will focus particularly on the uptake of the toxic elements in the plants, and their effect on the activity of key catalytic enzymes involved in soil-plant interactions. Her research will help assess the suitability of these two local plant species for use in phytoremediation in the Niger Delta. Through a better understanding of the interactions between soil, pollutant and plant enzymes during this process, the study could help ensure that this sustainable solution for polluted land is used most effectively.

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