12 May 2014 15:56

Farmers could improve crop production by pairing up plants with complementary traits, allowing them to harness the ‘phosphorus bank’ already present in soils.

A new £1.2 million, three-year project led by Lancaster University, will explore the potential of ‘collaborative roots’ which will hopefully find new ways of unlocking  organic phosphorus stored in the soil and making it available to crops .

The work, will be undertaken by a scientific consortium including the James Hutton Institute, Rothamsted Research and researchers in the Lancaster Environment Centre.

Phosphorus is a non-renewable resource, essential for crop production. Due to inefficient use and limited global reserves, inorganic phosphorus fertilisers will become less economically viable and potentially scarce within the next couple of decades. Without action, this situation could lead to declining agricultural productivity in the foreseeable future.

Professor Phil Haygarth, of Lancaster University is leading  the national research team. He said: “A large proportion of phosphorus already present in soils is found in organic forms, which are generally unavailable to plants for two reasons. Firstly, organic phosphorus is often tightly bound to soil surfaces, and secondly it must be transformed into inorganic compounds before it can be taken up by plants. We hope that by pairing up plants, such as certain strains of barley and clover, we will learn exactly which plants work well as a couple to access phosphorus and which plants don’t.”

Dr Tim George, rhizosphere scientist at the James Hutton Institute and lead investigator on the project, said: “Some plants help mobilise organic phosphorus in soils by producing organic acids from their roots, whilst others exude enzymes that mineralise this phosphorus into forms available to plants.

“We are investigating bi-cropping systems that combine plants with these individual traits to determine if such systems can improve the utilisation of organic phosphorus and help transform organic phosphorus into a viable, sustainable nutrient source for agricultural production.

“Outputs from the project will have impact for many individuals involved in crop production from agricultural research scientists, fertiliser suppliers, crop breeders and land managers through to policy makers.

“By increasing the amount of phosphorus utilised from the ‘phosphorus bank’ stored in soils we can reduce the reliance on inorganic fertilisers, increasing agricultural sustainability and improving our ability to deliver food security in coming decades.”

The results of the study could influence the way in which cropping systems are considered in the future both nationally and internationally, by providing fundamental science to support crop development, based on more than just yield and productivity, but also on the specific soil/plant processes involved.