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MSU to Study How Plants Absorb Harmful Chemicals from Soil, Water

Hui Li

Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch scientist Hui Li has been awarded a $475,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to study the mechanisms by which fresh vegetables absorb pharmaceuticals and personal care products from soil and water. Pharmaceuticals and personal care products are commonly referred to as chemicals of emerging concern (CECs).

The award is one of 80 grants totaling $30 million given by the USDA to universities around the country studying a variety of food-related challenges. The project is made possible by the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, a program of the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Li’s research on human exposure to CECs through fresh produce addresses a primary aspect of food safety. Consumption of these chemicals may lead to increased antibiotic resistance and other human health issues.

A better understanding of the mechanism(s) that vegetables employ to take up pharmaceuticals from soil and water will help the scientific community guide and assist producers in efforts to minimize chemical hazards in fresh produce.

“These CECs could be taken up by field crops/vegetables and enter humans and animals through consumption of these foodstuffs,” Li said. “The human health consequences of chronic exposure to an undefined mixture of pharmaceuticals designed to be bioactive at low concentrations are largely unknown but potentially of enormous significance.”

Li will integrate hydroponic and soil-pot experiments while applying advanced analytical measurements that quantify CECs at very low levels. A new liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometer was installed in Li’s laboratory in 2015 to quantify the presence of CECs in vegetables. This state-of-the-art equipment has already been used to measure trace levels of chemicals in water, soil, biosolids and vegetables.

Fresh produce used in the project includes carrots, cucumbers, celery and lettuce, chosen for their variety of characteristics. Fifteen pharmaceutical products were selected on the basis of the frequency that specific pharmaceuticals are found in the environment. Ultimately, the research aims to investigate how soil management and irrigation practices can mitigate the uptake of CECs.

The three-year project extends through October 2018. Other investigators working on the project are MSU AgBioResearch scientists Stephen Boyd, Wei Zhang and Ray Hammerschmidt, all from the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences.

- Holly Whetstone, AgBioResearch

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