Background, aim and scope Sulphonated anthraquinones are precursors of many synthetic dyes and pigments, recalcitrant to biodegradation and thus not eliminated by classical wastewater treatments. In the development of a phytotreatment to remove sulphonated aromatic compounds from dye and textile industrial effluents, it has been shown that rhubarb (Rheum rabarbarum) and common sorrel (Rumex acetosa) are the most efficient plants. Both species, producing natural anthraquinones, not only accumulate, but also transform these xenobiotic chemicals. Even if the precise biochemical mechanisms involved in the detoxification of sulphonated anthraquinones are not yet understood, they probably have cross talks with secondary metabolism, redox processes and plant energy metabolism. The aim of the present study was to investigate the possible roles of cytochrome P450 monooxygenases and peroxidases in the detoxification of several sulphonated anthraquinones. Materials and methods Both plant species were cultivated in a greenhouse under hydroponic conditions, with or without sulphonated anthraquinones. Plants were harvested at different times and either microsomal or cytosolic fractions were prepared. The monooxygenase activity of cytochromes P450 toward several sulphonated anthraquinones was tested using a new method based on the fluorimetric detection of oxygen consumed during cytochromes P450-catalysed reactions. The activity of cytosolic peroxidases was measured by spectrophotometry, using guaiacol as a substrate. Results A significant activity of cytochromes P450 was detected in rhubarb leaves, while no (rhizome) or low (petioles and roots) activity was found in other parts of the plants. An induction of this enzyme was observed at the beginning of the exposition to sulphonated anthraquinones. The results also indicated that cytochromes P450 were able to accept as substrate the five sulphonated anthraquinones, with a higher activity toward AQ-2,6-SS (0.706 nkat/mg protein) and AQ-2-S (0.720 nkat/mg protein). An activity of the cytochromes P450 was also found in the leaves of common sorrel (1.212 nkat/mg protein (AQ-2,6-SS)), but no induction of the activity occurred after the exposition to the pollutant. The activity of peroxidases increased when rhubarb was cultivated in the presence of the five sulphonated anthraquinones (0.857 nkat/mg protein). Peroxidase activity was also detected in the leaves of the common sorrel (0.055 nkat/mg protein), but in this plant, no significant difference was found between plants cultivated with and without sulphonated anthraquinones. Discussion Results indicated that the activity of cytochromes P450 and peroxidases increased in rhubarb in the presence of sulphonated anthraquinones and were involved in their detoxification mechanisms. Conclusions These results suggest the existence in rhubarb and common sorrel of specific mechanisms involved in the metabolism of sulphonated anthraquinones. Further investigation should be performed to find the next steps of this detoxification pathway. Recommendations and perspectives Besides these promising results for the phytotreatment of sulphonated anthraquinones, it will be of high interest to develop and test, at small scale, an experimental wastewater treatment system to determine its efficiency. On the other hand, these results reinforce the idea that natural biodiversity should be better studied to use the most appropriate species for the phytotreatment of a specific pollutant.