A biologist at Neuchâtel University and four other European scientists have carried off this year's Körber award for their work in plant physiology. The prize, worth €750,000 (SFr1.15 million), will be awarded later this week in Hamburg, Germany.
"We are mainly interested in responses of plants to stress situations," said prize-winner, Enrico Martinoia, from Neuchâtel. "We are trying to understand how plants can survive in soils which are contaminated with heavy metals or chemicals and how they then detoxify."
Many soils are heavily contaminated with heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, copper, zinc and nickel. Plants, which can extract these metals efficiently, would provide an economical means of detoxification.
"At the moment, there are some specialist plants which can accumulate heavy metals but they are very small so they don't extract a lot from the soil," said Martinoia.
"We have to learn how these plants deal with heavy metals and look at ways of creating plants which can do the same task. It is a way in which transgenic plants can be very helpful."
Martinoia works in a loose collaboration with the other German and British prize winners - Wolf-Bernd Frommer from Tübingen University, Rainer Hedrich from Würzburg, Norbert Sauer from Erlangen-Nürnberg and Dale Sanders from York.
The scientists hope that within eight years they will be able to reduce the presence of heavy metals in soil by 90 per cent. The plans is for the plants to be incinerated in special ovens after they have absorbed the toxic compounds.
The Körber Award promotes cooperation between European scientists across national borders. Awards are presented for joint research projects in the fields of natural science, medicine and technology.
The prize is awarded by the Körber Foundation whose other areas of activity are international dialogue, education, cultural projects and the care of the elderly and the sick.
by Vincent Landon