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University of Missouri

Lifting Heavy Metals

Plants can get bad metals out of the ground and good metals into your diet.

David Mendoza-Cozatl

Knowing more about how plants take metals out of the ground could help make more nutritious plants and clean up toxic waste sites. For his research in this area, assistant professor of plant science David Mendoza-Cozatl earned a five-year, $1 million CAREER award from the National Science Foundation. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Plants are like natural vacuum cleaners, taking up minerals from the soil and storing them in their tissues, including leaves and seeds. Some of these minerals — zinc, iron — are essential for human health. Others — mercury, lead — are toxic.

Studying how to get more good minerals into edible plants (biofortification) and more toxic minerals out of the ground at contaminated waste sites and into plants (phytoremediation) has earned David Mendoza-Cozatl, assistant professor of plant sciences, a five-year, $1 million CAREER award from the National Science Foundation. The award helps young faculty members develop promising programs that integrate research and education.

“[The grant] is a lot of responsibility on one hand,” says Mendoza-Cozatl, “but it gives you confidence to pursue things more aggressively.”

Mendoza-Cozatl uses the quick-growing Arabidopsis thaliana plant to do his work, identifying plants’ molecular mechanisms that take up and store metals.

Mendoza-Cozatl studied transport processes in algae for his doctoral work in Mexico. He then looked at metal accumulation in plant roots for his postdoctoral fellowship. “I noticed there was a lot of missing information,” Mendoza-Cozatl says. “All this mobilization of metals from soil to roots, roots to leaves, and leaves to seeds requires transporters. And there’s not a lot known about these transporters, so I saw an opportunity.”

As part of his grant’s education component, Mendoza-Cozatl will bring journalism students interested in science writing into his lab to see science from the inside. They will perform experiments, interpret results and write about it in a blog.

“I hope it changes the perspective they have,” Mendoza-Cozatl says. “It’s not the same to write about science by [only] reading it.”

Read about another CAREER award recipient, Jianlin “Jack” Cheng, a computer scientist who studies the human genome’s 3-D structure.