Following the Lead: Impact of Soil Amendments on Lead Toxicity to Tomato Plants

Head shot for Alicia McElwee

Name: Alicia McElwee
Majors: Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, Religious Studies
Advisors: Dr. Paul Edmiston, Dr. Mark Snider (second reader)

Heavy metal contamination in the soil is toxic to plants and so presents a threat to both large scale and urban agricultural productivity. This investigation examined the extent to which synthetic and organic fertilizer treatments mitigated the physiological and metabolomic stress response of tomato plants to heavy metals. Thirty-six tomato plants were grown to the 4th leaf stage with either organic or synthetic fertilizer treatments and with either no added lead, 550 ppm, or 2000 ppm added lead (n=6 for each of the six treatment groups). The beet armyworm survivorship and dried plant biomass produced were measured. The metabolome of each plant was measured using LC-qTOF-MS in both positive and negative ion modes. Suspect screening was used to measure differences in 153 metabolites. Overall, beet armyworm survivorship was not impacted by either fertilizer or lead treatment. Plant above-ground biomass produced was lower in the organic condition (p = 0.000, permutation test) but was not significantly different between lead treatments. The suspect screen revealed 30 compounds differed significantly between both the fertilizer and the lead treatments. Notably, the 2000 ppm lead treated plants had increased levels of leucine and phenylalanine and decreased levels of arginine over the no lead treated plants (p < 0.01 for all, permutation test). The difference in concentrations of targeted metabolites between the 2000 ppm lead and no lead levels was much larger in the organic treatment plants than the synthetic treatment plants, potentially indicating synthetic fertilizers decreased the tomato plant’s stress response. Future work would involve further investigating the relationship between fertilizer treatment and metabolic pathways involved with plant heavy metal stress response, such as protein degradation. Future investigations should examine the metabolomic data through non-targeted analysis to potentially discover other important metabolic pathways which were differentially impacted by the treatments.

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Posted in Comments Enabled, Independent Study, Symposium 2022 on April 26, 2022.

6 responses to “Following the Lead: Impact of Soil Amendments on Lead Toxicity to Tomato Plants”

  1. Carolyn Klein says:

    Very cool research 🙂 I’m so proud of you!! RIP to those tomato plants <3

  2. Jennifer Faust says:

    I appreciate how you used the tools of analytical chemistry to address a practical and important research question! What advice would you have for a student getting started with metabolomics?

  3. Saralee says:

    Go Alicia! My favorite Ivy Gal!

  4. Linda Ruehrmund says:

    This is a very important area of study for the future. Your interest could have a resounding impact on the overall health of all of us from all the food we consume containing elements in the soil in which growth occured. Very interesting.

  5. Larry Phelan says:

    The poster looks great Alicia! Well done.

  6. Abby McFarren says:

    Congrats Alicia! You did such a good job!

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Religious Studies

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Biology and Chemistry combine in an interdisciplinary program for students with a passion for molecular events.


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