Nature Finds a Way: Will Plants Outlive Humans?

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They grow up from the cracks in the sidewalk, climb the brick walls that line the streets, and even break through pipes underground. Plants. Their amazing ability to adapt to even the harshest environment may help them outlast humanity.

Sydney’s Homebush Bay. Once a dumping ground for toxic chemicals like DDT and phthalates, with industrial waste reaching levels that made the water unswimmable and the fish inedible. Starting in 1980 efforts were made to rehabilitate the bay, and remediation of the bay began in 2008, successfully removing 75% of the toxin dioxin. While the water is not as clean as it once was, the mangroves native to the area have found a way to not only survive, but to thrive.

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Mangroves thrive in once polluted waters (Image: neeravbhatt from Flickr)

Aboard the floating wreck of the hundred year old SS Ayrfield they grow. Built in 1911, the ship is now home to a thriving mini mangrove forest. While becoming a perfect opportunity for photographers looking to capture the intrinsic juxtaposition of nature versus human technology it is also a testament to the strength of plants to survive, whatever the conditions.

Homebush Bay is only one of the examples of plants ability to adapt. In Chernobyl, Ukraine, best known for the 1986 Chernobyl Power Plant disaster, scientists have found that plants in the area have found a way to survive where even humans are discouraged from going.

When the power plant exploded, radioactive particles were thrown into the air, contaminating the surrounding soil. According to recent research, even the high levels of radioactivity still present in the soil have not stopped plants from growing. In fact, they seem to have grown stronger in order to survive.

In a study published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology by Martin Hajduch, a plant geneticists at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Slovakia, a change in plants protein levels seems to have been a great defense against the radioactivity.

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Plants growing over Chernobyl (Image:Flickr CC-licensed: slumbernaut)

“If you visit the area, you’d never think anything bad had happened there,” said Hajduch. “Somehow plants were able to adapt to the radioactivity; we wanted to understand what kind of molecule changes were going on.”

The 5% difference in protein levels found in local flaxseed seems to act as a sort of shield for the plants. Of course, the plants are still not suitable for human consumption, but Hajduch hopes that they might one day be used for agricultural purposes, perhaps to refine a breed of plants that can grow even in the harshest of soils. The team hopes to continue their research on second and third generations of the plants recovered from the area.

While growing in harsh environments is quite impressive, plants have an even more impressive trick up their sleeves. Phytoremediation uses specialized plants to clean polluted soil. Plants that transport and accumulate high levels of pollutants into their bodies, known as hyper-accumulators, act like biological vacuums to actually remove toxins from soil.

Phytoremediation is being used in urban areas with some success. A company called Phytotech is using mustard greens to remove lead from yards in Boston. Though the technique has been successful, there is still considerable work to be done when it comes to detoxifying the waters and soils around the world.

It is often said that reducing pollution is an effort to save the world, but it would seem that the plants on Earth have the amazing ability to live and thrive in spite of us. Perhaps it is more that we should save ourselves, as plants may not only live on in our absence, but even clean up our mess.

Image: Namco Bandai (Enslaved: Odyssey to the West)

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