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Phytoremediation, or the use of plants for removal and detoxification of environmental pollutants, has garnered great attention in recent years. This heightened interest is both scientifically, due the fascinating processes utilized by plants for tolerance and removal of harmful compounds, and commercially, as plants represent a more environmentally compatible and less expensive method of site remediation compared to standard approaches. The majority of phytoremediation studies have been with naturally occurring plant species after empirical discovery of their exceptional abilities for such applications. This has led to a growing body of literature and wider acceptance for plants in many aspects of environmental rehabilitation. However, this has occurred with little understanding of their basic biological mechanisms of action or investigation of alternative strategies for enhancing the capabilities of these extraordinary plants. Better understanding of plant physiology, biochemistry and molecular biology in response to specific contaminants is critical for optimization and advancement of phytoremediation. By applying the tools of biotechnology, the potential for plants as an aggressive method of environmental decontamination may be realized. This paper will serve as an introduction to the first Symposium assembled exclusively to review the use of molecular genetic and biotechnological methods for improvement of plants for phytoremediation. After a brief review of the other invited speakers' works (with more extensive papers following), the pioneering work using bacterial genes expressed in plants for removal of mercurial compounds will be surveyed.