Soil contamination is typically a man made issue and presents problems such as decreased soil fertility and crops containing harmful levels of pollutants. One possible solution is phytoremediation, the use of certain plants that can actually thrive in these conditions and absorb contaminants like heavy metals from the ground. People like Leon V. Kochian of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY have been studying plants like these since the early 1990s.
Unlike mechanical methods used to decontaminate soils, which disturb the environment and are not very cost effective, the use of phytoremediation is a clean and natural way to extract harmful elements into parts of the plant that can be easily harvested and disposed of.
The plant commonly known as alpine pennycress is a good example of a plant used for phytoremediation. It does well in environments containing high levels of cadmium and zinc, absorbing them using genes that can increase the solubility of such metals which can then be extracted for other economical uses.
Another example is a space in Clackamas, OR that was previously an abandoned grassy field in an industrial area. This particular space had groundwater contaminated by volatile organic compounds, most likely caused by illegal dumping. Poplar trees were planted in 1998 and by 2002 they were still alive and thriving. Tissue tests were done to show that the trees were indeed taking up the volatile organic compounds, thus showing that phytoremediation could be considered at other sites around the world.
Added by: Will Baker