Adaptation to Copper

Heavy metals such as zinc, lead and copper interfere with an organisms normal functioning by attaching themselves to proteins and DNA. Heavy metals are rare under natural conditions, so most plants and animals have never adapted to them and thus do not tolerate them. Because of human activity, heavy metals in high concentrations are more common. Plants and animals must adapt to these heavy metals or face extinction.

Another example of evolutionary change induced by human pursuits discussed in the book Darwin Comes to Town by Menno Schilthuizen is the adaptation of yellow monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus) to copper. At the Copperopolis copper mine in California, yellow monkey flowers survive on copper-rich slag heaps.  This copper tolerance is due to a single gene mutant which appears to help the cells flush out copper atoms.

M.R. NcNair and his associates showed a similar single-gene modification in copper tolerant yellow monkey flowers from Northern Wales.

Yellow monkey flowers are native to Western North America but since the early 19th Century have become naturalized in Europe and Great Britain. Other common names for yellow monkey flower are common monkey flower and seep monkey flower. A synonym for M guttatus is Erythranthe guttatus.

More information about yellow monkey flower can be found in my previous post “Yellow Monkey Flower” on 08-04-2011. These yellow monkey flowers were photographed along Spring Creek in Collier Park (Oregon) in July.


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3 Responses to Adaptation to Copper

  1. tonytomeo says:

    Monkey flower just happens to be very common around Almaden. I know it is just coincidence, but it does happen to do well on the trailings from the old mines. It also does well on the debris from the Permanente Quarry outside of Cupertino.

    • gingkochris says:

      As I understand it there are cinnabar (mercury) mines near Almaden. I wonder if the yellow monkey flower has adapted to mercury?

      • tonytomeo says:

        Almaden is the second largest mercury deposit in the world, and is named after Almaden in Spain, which is the largest deposit. A few other minerals were mined right around Almaden and Los Gatos, including copper and bauxite (aluminum). Supposedly, the weird green and pink sheen in the stone in the area is from the copper.

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