Tree branch filters water

Pine tree branches (Credit: Jonathon Colman/Flickr)

Main Point:

Pine tree sapwood filters bacteria from contaminated water.

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Study Further:

A small piece of freshly cut sapwood can filter out more than 99 percent of the bacteria E. coli from water, according to a paper published in PLOS ONE on February 26, 2014 by Michael Boutilier and Jongho Lee and colleagues from MIT.

Researchers were interested in studying low-cost and easy-to-make options for filtering dirty water, a major cause of human mortality in the developing world. The sapwood of pine trees contains xylem, a porous tissue that moves sap from a tree’s roots to its top through a system of vessels and pores. To investigate sapwood’s water-filtering potential, researchers collected white pine branches, stripped the outer bark, and cut them into small inch-long sections. They then mounted each in plastic tubing, sealed and secured, and filtered water through that either contained small particles or E. coli bacteria.

The authors found that sapwood filtered out particles greater than 70 nanometers wide, but was unable to separate out 20-nanometer particles, suggesting that there is a particle size limit to what coniferous sapwood can filter.  Sapwood also filtered out more than 99% of E. coli from water, which mostly accumulated in the first few millimeters of the wood in what are known as pit membranes. The small- branch filtration system produced water at rates up to four liters of clean drinking water a day, typically enough for one person. However, the authors caution that only hydrated sapwood (and not dried-out wood) will filter out contaminants.

“There’s huge variation between plants,” says Rohit Karnik, senior author on the paper. “There could be much better plants out there that are suitable for this process. Ideally, a filter would be a thin slice of wood you could use for a few days, then throw it away, and replace at almost no cost. It’s orders of magnitude cheaper than the high-end membranes (currently) on the market today.”

Adapted by PLOS ONE from press release by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office.


Boutilier MSH, Lee J, Chambers V, Venkatesh V, Karnik R (2014) Water Filtration Using Plant Xylem. PLoS ONE 9(2): e89934. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0089934,

Financial Disclosure:

This work was supported by the James H. Ferry, Jr. Fund for Innovation in Research Education award to R.K. administered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. SEM imaging was performed at the Harvard Center for Nanoscale Systems, a member of the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), which is supported by the National Science Foundation under NSF award no. ECS-0335765. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interest Statement:

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


Rohit Karnik, Email: (preferred), phone: 617-324-1155

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