Could dandelions actually be good for the environment? Long dismissed as a weed, the plant is now giving hope to researchers who have been looking for ways to rehabilitate regions damaged by oil spills.

Biologist Susan Kaminskyj from the University of Saskatchewan recently discovered a dandelion growing in the middle of an otherwise completely barren patch of oilsands coarse tailings. It was an exciting moment—plants that appear in extreme environments typically need help to sprout up. She spent a couple weeks investigating what helped the dandelion to survive the harsh, acidic conditions that were left over from oilsands mining, and discovered that it was the host to a symbiotic fungus that was eating those mining leftovers.

On a hunch, researchers separated the fungus from the dandelion, and introduced that fungus to several seed mixtures often used in remediation projects at sites of oil spills and mining. After a couple months, the team checked the soil petrochemical levels and found they were substantially reduced. It appears the fungus eats these petrochemicals and turns them into a mixture of carbon dioxide and water.

Practical applications of the fungus have been encouraging. Four-week-old tomato seedlings were more than twice as large as untreated seedlings that had been planted in the same course tailings. Standard remediation seed mixes often failed entirely to germinate when planted in these tailings, but the fungus-treated seedlings germinated 90 percent of the time.

Wheat seedlings also demonstrated much stronger root growth after being treated with the fungus.

What Are Oil Sands And Coarse Tailings?

Taking a step back, for the layperson to understand the significance of these findings it is important to also understand exactly what oil sands and coarse tailings are.

Oil sands are a geologic area that contains sand, clay and a type of crude oil petroleum called bitumen. Bitumen is extremely difficult to extract—it takes two tons of oil sands to produce a single barrel of oil, and it is a very complex and expensive procedure to boot.

Tailings are residue left from mining processes, after all the valuable minerals have already been removed. Coarse tailings are the larger particles that settle from water that was used to separate the oil from bitumen.

What makes this so significant is that the residues in oil sands tailings are highly toxic to indigenous plants, meaning it is almost impossible for anything to grow in these regions. In many cases, these regions are just left behind rather than rehabilitated due to the costs of rehabilitation.

However, this single dandelion provides hope for a more effective means of rehabilitating these areas and removing the toxins from the soil. Scientists will need to study the fungus and its relationship it forms with plants in these areas much more, but it is at least a positive sign that less-expensive rehabilitation is truly a possibility.

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