Potential new fertiliser

Image: Tennessee Valley Authority, 1942/ Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

Image: Tennessee Valley Authority, 1942/ Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

This month’s win­ner in the ‘so simple it’s pos­it­ively bril­liant (but why did nobody think of it before?)’ cat­egory is Damar López-Arredondo and Luis Herrera-Estrella’s paper entitled, ‘Engineering phos­phor­ous [sic.] meta­bol­ism in plants to pro­duce a dual fer­til­iz­a­tion and weed con­trol system’.

Apart from the unusual spelling of phos­phorus in the title (it is cor­rect in the body of the art­icle – and this is import­ant since the study deals with two sim­il­arly worded phos­phorus com­pounds: phosphate and phosphite!), this is a most inter­est­ing piece of research. I can do no bet­ter than repro­duce the paper’s own rather eleg­ant sum­mary of the work (from Laboratorio Nacional de Genómica para la Biodiversidad, Centro de Investigación y de Estudios Avanzados del Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Irapuato, Guanajuato, México) here: ‘High crop yields depend on the con­tinu­ous input of ortho­phos­phate (PO43–)-based fer­til­izers and herb­i­cides. Two major chal­lenges for agri­cul­ture are that phos­phorus is a non­re­new­able resource and that weeds have developed broad herb­i­cide res­ist­ance. One strategy to over­come both prob­lems is to engin­eer plants to out­com­pete weeds and microor­gan­isms for lim­it­ing resources, thereby redu­cing the require­ment for both fer­til­izers and herb­i­cides. Plants and most microor­gan­isms are unable to meta­bol­ize phos­phite (PO33–), so we developed a dual fer­til­iz­a­tion and weed con­trol sys­tem by gen­er­at­ing trans­genic plants [ara­bidop­sis and tobacco] that can use phos­phite as a sole phos­phorus source. Under green­house con­di­tions, these trans­genic plants require 30–50% less phos­phorus input when fer­til­ized with phos­phite to achieve sim­ilar pro­ductiv­ity to that obtained by the same plants using ortho­phos­phate fer­til­izer and, when in com­pet­i­tion with weeds, accu­mu­late 2–10 times greater bio­mass than when fer­til­ized with ortho­phos­phate’. Or, and in sum­mary, ‘the pro­duc­tion of trans­genic crop plants able to util­ize phos­phite, together with the applic­a­tion of phos­phite as a source of phos­phorus, might poten­tially become an effect­ive phosphorus-fertilization and weed con­trol scheme in the almost 67% of cul­tiv­ated land with low ortho­phosphate availability’.

Whilst the authors are appro­pri­ately – and under­stand­ably – cau­tious about the sig­ni­fic­ance of the res­ults and how well they will scale-up to field-sized tri­als, this work – from the coun­try whose CIMMYT (The International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) was a major player in the Green Revolution of the last cen­tury – sounds like another agro­nomic devel­op­ment with tre­mend­ous poten­tial. ¡Muchas gracias!


Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

2 Responses

  1. Pat says:

    I believe the title shows an excel­lent grasp of tech­nical English and dis­tin­guishes the spe­cific exper­i­ments described.

    From the OED:

    phos­phor­ous, adj.

    2. Chem. Of or relat­ing to the ele­ment phos­phorus; con­tain­ing phos­phorus, esp. in its lower com­mon valency (3). Cf. phos­phoric adj. 1.

    Special uses
    phos­phor­ous acid n. Chem. an oxy­acid con­tain­ing trivalent phos­phorus; (usu­ally) spec. a col­our­less, crys­tal­line, dibasic acid, HPO(OH)2

    Of course, phos­phites are the salts pro­duced by phos­phor­ous acid as phos­phates are pro­duced by phos­phoric acid. Both with trivalent phosphorus.

  2. Pat says:

    I should cla­rify that the “both” I referred to in the last com­ment were phos­phor­ous acid and phos­phite, which are trivalent , The phos­phoric acid and phos­phates men­tioned in that same sen­tence are penta­valent, of course.

    Having English as my first lan­guage makes me sloppy with it, of course.