Plant detective: Missouri S&T professor studies plants as “bio-sentinels” of indoor pollution

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Behold the common house plant, the front-yard shrub, the rhododendron around back that’s seen better days since the next-door neighbors put their home on the market.
They brighten our lawns, increase our property values, even boost our mental and physical health by reducing carbon dioxide levels.
For Dr. Joel Burken, such plants are far more valuable than as mere window dressing. The Curators’ Distinguished Professor and chair of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at Missouri S&T is an expert in phytoforensics, the process of using plants to study human exposure to pollutants.
Plants are “place-bound. They grow in one location and they interact with the soil, the groundwater and the surrounding air,” he explains. “They’re really masters of mass transfer. They harvest from those surroundings all the carbon, all the water, all the nutrients they need. But chemicals in those surroundings also can accumulate in those plant tissues.
“So if we sample those plants, we’re actually sampling those surroundings. And by understanding the chemical exposure to plant pathways, we can also then understand the chemical exposure to human pathways,” Burken adds.
In an upcoming article in the journal Science and the Total Environment, doctoral students Majid Bagheri and Khalid Al-jabery, working with Burken and Dr. Donald Wunsch, the Mary K. Finley Missouri Distinguished Professor and professor of computer science at S&T, use machine learning techniques and statistical analysis to help better understand how groundwater contaminants are absorbed by plant roots.
That research builds on a three-year National Science Foundation (NSF) grant awarded to Burken; Dr. V.A. Samaranayake, Curators’ Teaching Professor of mathematics and statistics; and Dr. Glenn Morrison, professor of environmental engineering, to study how pollutants absorbed by plants can move through soil and enter a building in a process known as vapor intrusion.
“By understanding the chemical interactions, we really have a potential …

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