Phytoremediation is a sustainable way to mitigate societal and environmental harm from soil pollution with metal trace elements. Yet, limited knowledge of plant adaptation to excess metals limits the efficiency and broad application of this emergent technique. This interdisciplinary project unites leading research and commercial partners in a combined study of the genetic basis and physiological mechanisms of zinc accumulation in a model species.


The global industrial revolution has led to an unprecedented release of toxic substances into the environment. The far-reaching consequences of this pollution include soil contamination with hazardous waste, that threatens environmental and human health around the world. In the European Union alone, 0.5 Mio sites have been classified as highly contaminated and needing remediation. Among pollutants, metal trace elements are of major concern, as they hazard humans through direct contact with contaminated soil or ground water, ingestion via the food chain, reduction in food quality, and land tenure problems.

With increasing public awareness of the threats couching in polluted environments, there is a growing demand for improved technologies to remediate contaminated sites. In particular, people search for cost-effective alternatives to traditional restoration methods that require large financial investments and may not be harmless themselves. The potential of hyperaccumulators (= plants such as Arabidopsis halleri * that can allocate large amounts of metals and store them in leaves) to be applied in phytoremediation efforts is thus of great research and commercial interest. Yet, the genetic basis and physiological expression of the metal tolerance and hyperaccumulation traits are to date insufficiently understood.


The overall goal of the AriaDNA project is to advance knowledge on the evolution of the metal tolerance and hyperaccumulation traits, and to identify genes involved in metal homeostasis. We are implementing plant material from the pseudometallophyte model species Arabidopsis halleri in a multidisciplinary approach. By investigating genetically identical individuals in interlinked phenotyping experiments, genome–environment association studies and genome-wide association studies, we aim to provide deep insight in the ecological and genetic processes driving plant adaptation to heavy-metal contaminated soils.

Study area and methods

The research is conducted in southern Poland, including the Bolesław-Olkusz region (Cracow-Silesian Upland) where mining and processing of rich zinc–lead ore date back to the 13th century. These industrial activities have created some of the largest and most polluted anthropogenic metalliferous sites in Europe, with waste heaps and dust deposits of different age, composition and metal concentrations. The target species Arabidopsis halleri is part of the specific calamine flora that has evolved in response to the selection pressure from elevated metal concentrations in soils and its populations are exposed to a wide range of stressful conditions related to metal pollution.

Our project integrates advanced ecological, microscopic, evolutionary and genomic techniques and the work is organized in five complementary modules. By linking contrasting phenotypes identified in a field reciprocal transplant experiment (Module 1 and 2) and under controlled laboratory conditions (Module 3) to specific genetic changes (Module 4) we will identify genes involved in metal homeostasis and assess their impact on metal uptake and allocation in plants from polluted compared to natural habitats (Module 5). Although repeatedly advocated, such comprehensive and multidisciplinary approaches have rarely been applied to date.

* Arabidopsis halleri (Brassicaceae) is a small flowering plant that became a model organism in the field of plant biology and is also well known amongst ecologists. Arabidopsis halleri can survive and reproduce on soils contaminated by zinc and cadmium. It not only tolerates these metals, but accumulates and stores large amounts of them in leaves. Metallic substances can constitute up to 3% of the weight of Arabidopsis halleri. At the same time, Arabidopsis halleri populations are also present at non-polluted sites, making it a so-called "pseudometallophyte".


Follow the progress of the project.


Meet the people involved in the project.

Alicja Babst-Kostecka

Project Leader

Alicja is a researcher at the Department of Ecology of the W. Szafer Institute of Botany PAS and a guest scientist at the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL. Alicja leads and coordinates all research tasks, co-supervises the PhD student and mentors MSc students, is responsible for the dissemination and promotion of the project outcome.

Kamila Murawska

PhD student

Kamila is in the AriaDNA project since March 2019. She is conducting phenotyping experiments, analyzing images of root systems, and extracting DNA of soil microorganisms.

Charlotte Dietrich

PhD student

Charlotte is in the AriaDNA project since February 2019. She is analyzing root system development and architecture, and she completes the observations of leaf structural changes.

Pierre Vollenweider


Pierre is a senior researcher at the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL. Pierre’s primary role in the AriaDNA project is to support the microscopic analyses of plant material and co-supervise PhD student Barbara Łopata. Pierre provides connections to the Center for Microscopy and Image Analyses of the University of Zurich.

Felix Gugerli Künzle


Felix leads the "Ecological Genetics" group at the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL. Felix’ primary role in the AriaDNA project is to guide the genetic analyses by implementing the newest genomic techniques. His lab offers unlimited access to highest-level equipment at WSL and the Genetic Diversity Centre at the ETH Zurich.

Christian Rellstab


Christian is a senior researcher at the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL affiliated also with the Genetic Diversity Centre at the ETH Zurich. Christian’s primary role in the AriaDNA project is to support genomic analyses and development of the bioinformatics pipeline. Christian will also lead the environmental association analyses and genome-wide association studies.

They worked with us

Barbara Łopata
Agnieszka Pitek
Natalia Porada
Christian Sailer
Grażyna Szarek-Łukaszewska


The project is financed within the framework of the POWROTY / REINTEGRATION Programme

The POWROTY / REINTEGRATION Programme is part of the Grant Project of the Foundation for Polish Science European Funds within the Smart Growth Operational Programme 2014–2020 Priority Axis IV: Increasing the scientific research potential Measure 4.4: Increasing the human potential in the R & D sector

Project value: 1 179 461,00 PLN / EU grant value: 1 179 461,00 PLN



If you have any questions about the AriaDNA project, please don’t hesitate to contact us.


W. Szafer Institute of Botany, Polish Academy of Sciences
Lubicz 46, 31-512 Kraków, Poland
PHONE: +48 12 42 41 770 / FAX: +48 12 42 19 790