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Metal contamination and bioremediation of agricultural soils for food safety and sustainability

Abstract

Agricultural soil is a non-renewable natural resource that requires careful stewardship in order to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. However, industrial and agricultural activity is often detrimental to soil health and can distribute heavy metal(loid)s into the soil environment, with harmful effects on human and ecosystem health. In this Review, we examine processes that can lead to the contamination of agricultural land with heavy metal(loid)s, which range from mine tailings runoff entering local irrigation channels to the atmospheric deposition of incinerator and coal-fired power-plant emissions. We discuss the relationship between heavy metal(loid) biogeochemical transformations in the soil and their bioavailability. We then review two biological solutions for remediation of contaminated agricultural land, plant-based remediation and microbial bioremediation, which offer cost-effective and sustainable alternatives to traditional physical or chemical remediation technologies. Finally, we discuss how integrating these innovative technologies with profitable and sustainable land use could lead to green and sustainable remediation strategies, and conclude by identifying research challenges and future directions for the biological remediation of agricultural soils.

Key points

  • Agricultural soil is a non-renewable natural resource that requires careful stewardship in order to achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

  • Global agricultural soil pollution by heavy metal(loid)s represents one of the biggest challenges to sustainable development, particularly in developing countries.

  • Bioremediation, including phytoremediation and microbially mediated bioremediation, is a promising nature-based solution for treating heavy metal(loid) contamination.

  • It is imperative that the international community realizes the seriousness of the heavy metal(loid)s contamination in soils, takes actions to prevent further pollution and instigates the remediation of contaminated sites with environmentally friendly techniques.

  • Policymakers should foster a bioremediation-enabling environment through policy instruments and increased field-based research funding.

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Fig. 1: The impact of soil pollution on SDGs.
Fig. 2: Sources of heavy metal(loid)s pollution in agricultural soil.
Fig. 3: Spatial distribution of heavy metal(loid)s.
Fig. 4: Phytoremediation.
Fig. 5: Microbial bioremediation.

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Acknowledgements

This work was carried out with the support of the Cooperative Research Program for Agriculture Science and Technology Development (project no. PJ01475801), Rural Development Administration, Republic of Korea. This work was also supported by the National Research Foundation of Korea (NRF) (NRF-2015R1A2A2A11001432) and the NRF Germany-Korea Partnership Program (GEnKO Program) (2018–2020). Y.S.O. and A.D.I. were partly supported by the KU Future Research Grant (KU FRG) Fund, Korea Biochar Research Center (KBRC) Fund and the Association of Pacific Rim Universities (APRU) Sustainable Waste Management Program from the Korea University, Republic of Korea. D.H. and D.O.C. were supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (grant no. 2018YFC1801300), the National Water Pollution Control and Treatment Science and Technology Major Project (no. 2018ZX07109-003) and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment’s National Soil Pollution Investigation Project in China.

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Y.S.O., D.H., D.O.C., A.D.I., J.L. and D.C.W.T. researched data for the article. Y.S.O., D.H. and D.C.W.T. made a substantial contribution to the discussion of content. Y.S.O., D.H., D.O.C., A.D.I., D.S.A. and J.L. contributed to the writing of the review. Y.S.O., D.H., D.O.C., A.D.I., D.S.A., D.C.W.T., D.L.S., Y.Y. and J.R. reviewed and edited the manuscript before submission.

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Correspondence to Yong Sik Ok.

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Glossary

Bioavailability

The proportion of a soil constituent that interacts with living organisms.

Geogenic

Resulting from natural geological processes.

Rhizosphere

The very narrow region of soil in the vicinity of plant roots.

Humic acids

Soil organic substances that coagulate when strong base extracts are acidified.

Fulvic acids

Soil organic substances that remain soluble when strong base extracts are acidified.

Hyperaccumulators

Plant species that extract and concentrate certain heavy metal(loid)s within their biomass when grown in metal-contaminated soils.

Siderophores

Chelating compounds secreted by microorganisms that bind with iron and other metals, increasing their bioavailability.

Lime

Calcium-rich alkaline-soil amendments, including marl, chalk, limestone or hydrated lime.

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Hou, D., O’Connor, D., Igalavithana, A.D. et al. Metal contamination and bioremediation of agricultural soils for food safety and sustainability. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 366–381 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-020-0061-y

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