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The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Research project: Nutrient stress in plants in relation to biofortification and phytoremediation

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Dr Lorraine Williams (Southampton) has collaborated with a team of European labs exploring the mechanisms regulating absorption, distribution and storage of both micronutrients (essential elements) and non-essential potentially toxic metals in plants (Arabidopsis, barley, wheat and tobacco). This research has important implications for agriculture, human nutrition and health as plants are the basis of all foodstuffs we ingest. The goal of biofortification is to develop plants that have an increased content of bioavailable nutrients in their edible parts.

HvHMA2 and AtHMA4 rescue the Zn-dependent phenotype of knockout mutant  hma2hma4

Nutrient stress (deficiency or excess) seriously affects plant growth, yield and quality. Transition/heavy metals such as zinc, manganese and copper and are essential minerals (known as micronutrients) for healthy plant growth. Micronutrients are essential for balanced nutrition in plants and animals.

Awareness in the importance of micronutrients to agriculture has been growing because in many soils micronutrient availability limits crop production and also influences nutritional quality. The micronutrient content of food affects human health and nutrition; micronutrient malnutrition now afflicts over two billion people worldwide resulting in overall poor health and higher rates of mortality.

OsMTP1 is a Zinc transporter protecting against Zn toxicity and is localised at the vacuole

Plants are the basis of all foodstuffs that we ingest; therefore, understanding the processes of plant micronutrient nutrition is highly relevant. For cereals, the development of high quality grain with improved content and distribution of metal micronutrients with minimal fertilization is an important goal.

Conversely many soils are contaminated by environmentally harmful transition/heavy metals (eg. Cd, Pb, Hg). This can arise as a result of municipal waste disposal, mining, manufacturing, power stations, and agricultural pollution (pesticides and fertilisers). These metals also have a long lifetime and persist in ecosystems. Heavy metals can be toxic to all life forms, including plants. Millions of hectares are reputed to be contaminated with heavy metal pollutants. This poses a serious risk for agriculture and a major source of heavy metal exposure to human populations is via the consumption of heavy metal contaminated food stuffs. Plants as non-mobile organisms face particular challenges in absorbing sufficient mineral micronutrients for their continued growth and development but at the same time dealing with toxic levels of these metals. Therefore, understanding the mechanisms of heavy metal uptake, translocation, and detoxification is not only of general scientific interest but will provide the scientific basis for reducing metal contamination in food supplies and improving the nutritional value of food. Biotechnological applications such as phytoremediation (the use of green plants to remove toxic compounds from the environment) will also benefit from understanding how metals are extracted from the soil and moved around the plant.

Funding: EU, BBSRC, Kerkut Trust (2006-2016).

PI lead on project and contact : Dr. Lorraine E. Williams (

Related research groups

Environmental Biosciences


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