Physiological and Growth Responses to Pollutant-Induced Biochemical Changes in Plants: A Review

Document Type : Review Paper


1 Department of Forest and Wood Science, Stellenbosch University, Bag X1 Matieland 7602, Stellenbosch, South Africa Department of Biomaterials Science and Technology, Copperbelt University, P. O. Box 21692, Kitwe, Zambia

2 Department of Soil Science, Stellenbosch University, Bag X1 Matieland 7602, Stellenbosch, South Africa

3 Department of Forest and Wood Science, Stellenbosch University, Bag X1 Matieland 7602, Stellenbosch, South Africa


Industrial activities compromise the ambient air quality at a local, regional and global level through gaseous and dust emissions. This study reviews uptake mechanisms and the associated phytotoxicity of pollutants in plants, focusing on heavy metals and SO2. It further describes detoxification mechanisms and the resultant biochemical and physiological changes in plants. Finally, the morpho-physiological and growth responses to stress-induced biochemical changes are discussed. Heavy metals and SO2 enter the plant tissue through the stomata, cuticular layers, lenticels and root hairs. In the plant cells, SO2 converts to SO32- or SO42- ions upon reacting with water molecules, which in excess are toxic to plants. However, the detoxification process of SO32- increases the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). ROS are toxic to plants and damages biomolecules such as lipids, proteins, carbohydrates and DNA. On the other hand, heavy metals, such as Cu and Fe catalyse the Fenton/Haber-Weiss reactions, breaking down H2O2 into OH•. Additionally, Pb and Zn inhibit the activities of ROS-detoxifying enzymes, while other heavy metals bind to cellular layers making them rigid, thereby reducing cell division. Therefore, pollutant toxicity in plants affects biochemical parameters damaging organic molecules and limiting cambial activity. Damaged biomolecules inhibit the plant's capacity to carry out physiological functions, such as photosynthesis, stomatal functions, transpiration and respiration while impaired cambial activity reduces cell division and elongation resulting in reduced plant growth and productivity.


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