16 May 2014

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’, hoping to find new ways of unlocking  organic phosphorus stored in the soil and making it available to crops.

Phosphorus is a non-renewable resource, essential for crop production. Limited global reserves of phosphorus, and Inefficient use of inorganic phosphorus fertilisers mean that, within the next two decades, these fertilisers will become less economically viable and potentially scarce.  Without action, this situation could lead to declining agricultural productivity. 

Improving phosphorus uptake

The study aims to improve plant uptake of phosphorus from the natural ‘phosphorus bank’ stored in soils, reducing our reliance on inorganic fertilisers and improving our ability to produce the food we need to feed a growing population.

The work is being undertaken by a scientific consortium including the Lancaster Environment Centre, the James Hutton Institute and Rothamsted Research

Professor Phil Haygarth, of the Lancaster Environment Centre, who is leading the national research team, said: “A large proportion of phosphorus already present in soils is found in organic forms, which are generally considered 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.

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.”

“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,” Phil explains.

Informing crop management and development

The results will be of interest to the many different groups involved in crop production including agricultural research scientists, fertiliser suppliers, crop breeders, land managers and policy makers. 

In the future, those developing new crops may consider not just improved yields but also the ability of crops to help with specific soil/plant interactions such as phosphorus uptake.