Metal-rich concretions on the roots of salt marsh plants: Mechanism and rate of formation

Sundby, Bjørn, Carlos Vale, Isabel Caçador, Fernando Catarino, Maria-João Madureira, Miguel Caetano

Limnol. Oceanogr., 43(2), 1998, 245-252 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.1998.43.2.0245

ABSTRACT: The roots of the vascular plant Spartina maritima, growing in the saltmarshes of the Tagus Estuary, Portugal, are surrounded by tubular concretions whose diameter can reach >0.2 cm. Concretions are also found scattered within the sediment matrix in and below the root zone. The concretions comprise 4% (DW) of the sediment and contain 11.7 ± 1.6% iron compared to 4.9 ± 0.3% iron in the sediment in which they are found. They are formed by the precipitation of iron oxides in the pores between the sediment grains; this has filled about one-sixth of the originally available pore space. To produce the concretions, the plants have extracted 0.25% Fe from the anoxic bulk sediment and concentrated it into the oxidized microenvironment surrounding each root. A mass-balance model using cylindrical geometry shows that the observed concretion density can be produced by a network of roots with l-cm spacing. The space between the roots limits the amount of Fe that is available to a given root and thus determines the size of the individual concretion. Field observations and mathematical modeling show that plants can produce concretions on their roots in the space of a few weeks. The rhizoconcretions are 5-10 times enriched in Cd, Cu, Pb, and Zn with respect to the sediment surrounding them, and the smaller diameter concretions are more enriched than the larger ones. The preferential enrichment of the smaller diameter concretions, which was not observed for Fe and Mn, is independent of depth in the sediment for Cd and Cu; however, for Zn and Pb, the preferential enrichment is most pronounced within the upper trace metal-contaminated sediment layer. The rhizoconcretions have acquired their load of metals via diffusion from the surrounding sediment. In the case of Fe and Mn, the concentration gradient that drives the diffusion is maintained by the precipitation of insoluble oxides. In the case of Cd, Cu, Zn, and Pb, the mechanism that maintains a concentration gradient toward the surface of the root is not know, but our data show that S. maritima is capable of mobilizing trace metals dispersed in reducing anoxic estuarine sediment and concentrating them into the distinct oxidized microenvironments that surround the roots.

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