Metabolic responses of weeping willows to selenate and selenite

Xiao Zhang Yu, Ji Dong Gu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Scopus citations


Goal, Scope and Background. Selenium (Se) is one of the most widely distributed elements of the earth's crust at low concentrations. The extensive use of Se-containing chemicals due to anthropogenic activities has increased the ecological risk to environmental compartments. Plants, under unfavorable environmental conditions, often increase the formation of reactive oxygen species (ROS), and consequently plant antioxidant enzymatic systems have been proposed to be important in plant stress tolerance. The goal of this study was to find out the metabolic responses of plants to Se, to provide quantitative information whether exogenous Se has a beneficial role in plants, and to investigate the potential of vegetation management of Se for potential phytoremediation. Material and Methods. Pre-rooted plants of weeping willows (Salix babylonica L.) were grown hydroponically in growth chambers and treated with Na2SeO4 or Na2SeO3 at 24.0 ± 1°C for 168 h. Five different treatment concentrations were used, ranging from 0.44 to 8.72 mg Se/L for the treatments exposed to SeO 42- and from 0.50 to 10.0 mg Se/L for the treatments exposed to SeO32-, respectively. Transpiration rates, soluble protein contents and antioxidative enzyme activities of the plants were monitored to evaluate toxicity from exogenous Se exposure. At the end of the study, total Se in the hydroponic solution was analyzed by hydride generation-atomic fluorescence spectrometry (HG-AFS). Results. Both chemical forms of Se at low concentrations showed growth-promoting effects on plants. A significant decrease of transpiration rates and of soluble protein contents of plants was observed at higher Se concentrations after 168 h of exposure. Measurable change of superoxide dismutases (SOD) activity in leaves was only detected under high Se treatments. Catalase (CAT) activity was significantly affected by the Se application. Slight change of peroxidase (POD) activity was measured in all treatments, whereas significant inhibition of POD activity was detected for the plants exposed to SeO32- of 10.0 mg Se/L. Se-induced stress appeared in all treatments, thus resulting in measurable increase of glutathione peroxidase (GSH-Px) activity of the plants. Although both chemical forms of Se were taken up by weeping willows efficiently, their uptake rates were different. Discussion. Of all measured parameters, POD and CAT activities in leaves were noted the most sensitive indicator for the plants exposed to SeO42- and SeO32-, respectively. Deleterious effects on plant physiological functions due to Se application were not observed over 168 h of exposure. This is largely due to the fact that well-established antioxidant enzymatic systems in plants and higher activities of GSH-Px largely reduced the negative effects on plants; SeO 32- caused much more severe stress to plants than SeO 42- at higher Se application rates. The uptake mechanisms between the two chemical species were quite different. Conclusions. Neither visible toxic symptoms nor metabolic lesions were observed at low concentrations of Se, probably due to the effective established enzymatic systems in weeping willows. All selected parameters for toxicity determination were significantly correlated to Se application, but metabolic responses of plants to SeO 42- and SeO32- were quite different. GSH-Px in leaves was probably the principle enzyme responsible for stress reduction from Se exposure. Due to their different chemical properties, weeping willows showed a faster uptake rate for SeO42- than for SeO32-. Recommendations. Exogenous Se has a beneficial role in plants and vegetation management of Se is a potential remediation strategy in cleaning up Se-contaminated sites. Further investigation on the biochemical mechanism of Se metabolism will provide insight to the specific interactions between Se and plants on the molecular level. Perspectives. Weeping willow has a sound potential for phytoremediation of Se-contaminated sediment and groundwater because the tree is not only tolerant to Se but also uptakes chemical species from the environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)510-517
Number of pages8
JournalEnvironmental Science and Pollution Research
Issue number7
StatePublished - Nov 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Antioxidant enzymes
  • Metabolism
  • Phytoremediation
  • Plant stress tolerance
  • Reactive oxygen species (ROS)
  • Secontaminated sediment and groundwater
  • Selenium
  • Toxicity
  • Uptake
  • Willows


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