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.

Barbara Łopata

PhD student

Barbara is in the AriaDNA project since November 2016. She is conducting the reciprocal transplant experiment, maintaining the greenhouse plant collection, studying the leaf structural changes and Zn allocation strategies. Barbara will also co-mentor our MSc students.

Grażyna Szarek-Łukaszewska


Grażyna is a senior researcher at the Department of Ecology of the W. Szafer Institute of Botany PAS. She supervises PhD student Barbara Łopata and supports tasks related to the field and greenhouse experiments. Grażyna is also actively involved in the dissemination of AriaDNA progress and results through regular contact with partners from the commercial and public sectors.

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.

Christian Sailer

External research partner

Christian is a PostDoc in the METALink project at the Swiss Federal Research Institute WSL. His work includes whole-genome re-sequencing of plants from metalliferous and non-metalliferous sites, for which he is establishing a bioinformatic pipeline. He will then search for signals of adaptation to soil contamination in in the Arabidopsis halleri genome.

Natalia Porada

MSc student

Natalia will support the maintenance of the greenhouse plant collection and participate in the reciprocal transplant experiment during the ongoing field season. In autumn 2017, Natalia will perform germination, vigor, and pollen viability tests in the lab.

Agnieszka Pitek

MSc student

Agnieszka will participate in asexual genotype multiplication and the experiment of Zn accumulation under controlled conditions. She will also take part in chemical analyses of plant and soil samples, and help us to archive material.

Join us

We are welcoming Bachelor and Master students for training in our group on several topics related to the AriaDNA project. If you are interested in joining us, please send me ( an e-mail, explaining your research interests and your motivation to work in our lab and attach a recent CV.


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