Decontaminating Soils with Mother Nature’s Help

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Decontaminating Soils with Mother Nature’s Help

Montreal researchers Franz Lang and Mohamed Hijri are thrilled with their recent discovery. They may just have found a way to clean up the contaminated sites of the entire planet! How do they plan on achieving this remarkable goal? By combining plants, mushrooms and bacteria! It’s a new green technology called bioremediation and its potential has yet to be fully unlocked

Mother Nature Lending a Hand with Soil Decontamination

Mining operations, oil and gas extraction, agriculture and manufacturing activities all contaminate soils the world over. Unfortunately current decontamination methods are not only expensive but also environmentally unsound. Bioremediation could soon change all of that.

1 + 2 + 3 = Bioremediation

Bioremediation refers to a range of methods used to clean up polluted soil, water and even air, through the careful combination of various factors. It generally involves interaction among: 1) plants 2) the soil and 3) microorganisms (bacteria and fungi) The soil provides the environment for plants and microorganisms to grow. These microorganisms feed on the pollutants, break them down and eventually eliminate them. Microbes therefore play an important role in accelerating the decontamination process.

Contamination des sols


Bioremediation, a green solution

Researchers Franz Lang, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Comparative and Evolutionary Genomics and professor of Biochemistry at Université de Montréal, and Mohamed Hijri professor of Biological Sciences at the same university, have been hard at work studying bioremediation, an emerging biotechnology that uses plants and microorganisms to decontaminate soils.


At the moment, the researchers are working on sequencing the genome of certain microbes to determine which bacteria and mushrooms are best for the job of soil decontamination. They are also trying to identify the optimal plant-mushroom-bacteria combinations that will make the decontamination process even more efficient.


The tremendous economic potential of bioremediation

Bioremediation offers tremendous potential for the Canadian economy, since it is much more affordable than traditional decontamination methods, such as excavation. “Right now, it costs several million dollars to decontaminate a single hectare of land. With our new technology, all you have to do is plant some trees, water them and wait for nature to do its job,” explained Mohamed Hijri during an interview on Radio Canada International.


“Our tree of choice is the willow, since it lives in intimate symbiosis with the many microbes in the soil. It’s a “pioneer” species that grows rapidly in harsh climates and in poor, even polluted, soil. The decontamination protocols we’re working on right now will be more effective than existing methods, because they will rely on the use of optimized microbes that interact with plants. They will be more cost-effective and more readily applicable for commercial use by biotechnology companies,” explained Franz Lang, the driving force behind this major scientific initiative.


The global soil decontamination market is obviously huge, since both industrialized and developing countries have a need for this type of technology.

Soil Remediation
in Canada

In Canada, soil remediation is a $30 billion market. In the last 10 years, the field has grown annually and the number of contaminated sites discovered has almost doubled. According to the Government of Canada: “Under its existing Federal Contaminated Sites Action Plan (FCSAP), $245 million has already been allocated for federal contaminated sites in 2009 and 2010. These funds and the remaining $547 million FCSAP funds will have contributed to the creation of close to 590 remediation projects country wide by the end of 2011.” And that’s only the tip of the iceberg!

Source: Invest in Canada

Franz Bernd Lang

Professor of Biochemistry at Université de Montréal


“Life on Earth as we know it is intimately linked to the relationships between organisms. In contaminated soils, it isn’t the plant doing most of the work. It’s the microorganisms, for example, the mushrooms and bacteria accompanying the root. There are thousands of species of microorganisms and our job is to find the best plant-mushroom-bacteria combinations.”

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Mohamed Hijri

Professor of Biological Sciences at Université de Montréal


“Our goal is to develop an eco-friendly technology to clean up polluted soils using plants and microorganisms, like bacteria and mushrooms. These organisms use oil as a source of food. They feed on it and break it down, gradually decontaminating the soil. Heavy metals are a different story, since they cannot be broken down. We want to use microorganisms so that the heavy metals can be soaked up into the stems and leaves of trees, which can then be harvested and incinerated. The ash residue would be sent to processing centres. Our dream is to eventually convert old industrial sites into community gardens, parks and other clean and useful urban spaces.”

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