1. Different plant species show considerable variation in their selenium content. Primary indicators, also termed selenium accumulators, many of which are members of the genus Astragalus, are highly tolerant of selenium; they are known to contain tissue levels of several thousand µg selenium/g. Secondary indicators, tolerant to low concentrations of the element, may absorb up to 1000 µg selenium/g. Non-accumulators are poisoned by selenium.
2. The toxicity of selenate (SeO4-) and selenite (SeO3-) to most plants can be attributed to a combination of three factors. Firstly, selenate and selenite are readily absorbed from the soil by roots and translocated to other parts of the plant. Secondly, metabolic reactions convert these anions into organic forms of selenium. Thirdly, the organic selenium metabolites, which act as analogues of essential sulphur compounds, interfere with cellular biochemical reactions.
3. Incorporation into proteins of the amino acid analogues selenocysteine and selenomethionine, in place of the equivalent sulphur amino acids, is considered to be the underlying cause of selenium toxicity. The physical and chemical differences between selenium and sulphur will result in small, but significant, changes in the biological properties of a selenium-substituted protein.
4. Selenium-tolerant accumulator plants differ in at least two respects from sensitive species. Large quantities of Se-methylselenocysteine and selenocystathionine, two non-protein selenoamino acids rarely detected in non-accumulators, have been isolated from the tissues of selenium accumulators. In addition, selenium is kept from entering proteins so that the selenium levels in proteins of accumulator plants is significantly lower than the levels in selenium-sensitive plants.
5. Exclusion of selenium from the proteins of accumulators is thought to be the basis of selenium tolerance. Discrimination against selenocysteine during protein synthesis seems to prevent incorporation of this selenoamino acid into proteins of accumulators. Furthermore, synthesis of Se-methylselenocysteine and selenocystathionine, which results in diversion of selenium away from the synthesis of selenomethionine, will restrict the amount of this compound available for protein synthesis.
6. Selenium accumulation among unrelated plant genera is a striking example of convergent evolution. The possibility that accumulation of this element is associated with a nutritional requirement for selenium, although explored in the past, is still in need of further clarification.