Molecular membrane separation: plants inspire new technologies

New Phytol. 2023 Apr;238(1):33-54. doi: 10.1111/nph.18762. Epub 2023 Feb 18.


Plants draw up their surrounding soil solution to gain water and nutrients required for growth, development and reproduction. Obtaining adequate water and nutrients involves taking up both desired and undesired elements from the soil solution and separating resources from waste. Desirable and undesirable elements in the soil solution can share similar chemical properties, such as size and charge. Plants use membrane separation mechanisms to distinguish between different molecules that have similar chemical properties. Membrane separation enables distribution or retention of resources and efflux or compartmentation of waste. Plants use specialised membrane separation mechanisms to adapt to challenging soil solution compositions and distinguish between resources and waste. Coordination and regulation of these mechanisms between different tissues, cell types and subcellular membranes supports plant nutrition, environmental stress tolerance and energy management. This review considers membrane separation mechanisms in plants that contribute to specialised separation processes and highlights mechanisms of interest for engineering plants with enhanced performance in challenging conditions and for inspiring the development of novel industrial membrane separation technologies. Knowledge gained from studying plant membrane separation mechanisms can be applied to developing precision separation technologies. Separation technologies are needed for harvesting resources from industrial wastes and transitioning to a circular green economy.

Keywords: bioengineering; efficiency; nutrition; transport; wastewater.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Plants* / metabolism
  • Soil*


  • Soil