Basil & toxins: Imptox researchers lead the quest for plant safety

Recent research led by our UGent team and published in Environmental Pollution explores how basil absorbs and purges harmful microcystin-LR, offering insights into plant resilience and food safety.


Pasta alla Genovese, adorned with fresh basil, epitomizes culinary perfection for many (certainly for many Italians). However, a recent scientific study reveals a less savory aspect of this herb that warrants attention. At the heart of this inquiry is microcystin-LR (MC-LR), a toxin produced by cyanobacteria in water bodies experiencing algal blooms. The study, led by Imptox researchers Prof. Andreja Rajkovic, Mohamed F. Abdallah, and their team, and published in Environmental Pollution, meticulously investigates how basil grown in hydroculture mediums interacts with this toxin.

The research demonstrates a clear, dose-dependent accumulation of MC-LR in basil. Specifically, plants exposed to varying concentrations of MC-LR in their growing medium absorbed the toxin in a manner proportional to the exposure level.

Equally important is the plant's ability to depurate, or purge, the absorbed MC-LR. The study observed that, after removing the toxin source and providing a clean hydroculture medium, basil plants significantly reduced the levels of MC-LR within a week. This capability suggests an innate resilience and a possible mechanism for detoxification, although the specific processes behind this phenomenon remain to be fully understood.

For the first time, the occurrence of MC-LR has been detected in commercially available basil intended for human consumption, marking a pivotal moment in our understanding of food safety. This discovery in the Belgian market highlights the relevance of the research beyond the confines of the laboratory, signaling a potential risk to public health.

This study forms a crucial component of the broader Imptox project, aiming to unravel the mysteries surrounding the interaction between micro- and nanoplastics and contaminants like mycotoxins in our environment. While the focus here is on MC-LR in basil, the implications stretch far and wide, touching upon the urgent need for comprehensive detection, mitigation strategies, and public awareness.

By advancing our knowledge in this field, the Imptox project contributes not only to the scientific community but also plays a critical role in shaping policies and practices that ensure the safety of our food and the health of our environment. Thanks to this research, we move closer to safeguarding our meals, our health, and our planet against the unseen threats of contemporary pollution.



Wannes Hugo R. Van Hassel, Mohamed F. Abdallah, Maria Gracia Guzman Velasquez, Christopher O. Miles, Ingunn A. Samdal, Julien Masquelier, Andreja Rajkovic, Experimental accumulation and depuration kinetics and natural occurrence of microcystin-LR in basil (Ocimum basilicum L.), Environmental Pollution, Volume 347,  2024, 123715, ISSN 0269-7491, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2024.123715.