Microbes Can Unlock Soil Phosphorus to Enhance Plant Growth

Phosphorus is a critical plant nutrient. It stimulates root growth, is part of photosynthesis and transferring nutrients through the plant, and without, maturity is delayed and fruits and seeds are few and poorly formed. The good news is that there is lots of phosphorous in the soil, with concentrations ranging from 200 to 6,000 pounds per acre. The bad news is that 80 percent of this phosphorus is immobile and not available for uptake by plants. We've managed to overcome this problem by adding nutrients to the soil as manure or chemical fertilizers. But erosion and runoff from fields has led to other problems - like algae growth in lakes and streams. But, today, there's some good news in the world of phosphorus. A research team led by the University of Washington and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has shown that microbes taken from trees growing beside pristine mountain-fed streams in Western Washington could make phosphorus trapped in soils more accessible to agricultural crops. The findings were published in October in the journal Frontiers in Plant Science. These bacteria are "endophytes," micro-organisms living within the tissue of a plant as endosymbionts. Sharon Doty, a professor in the UW School of Environmental and Forest Sciences thinks of them as “probiotics” for plants. Doty’s lab has shown in previous studies that microbes can help plants survive and even thrive in nutrient-poor environments — and help clean up pollutants. In this new study,

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2 thoughts on “Microbes Can Unlock Soil Phosphorus to Enhance Plant Growth

  1. After reading the article on legacy phosphorous to which this article links, I’m left wondering what do typical soil tests really measure and are they actually useful in the long term if one’s goal is to improve soil fertility and healthy functioning? In fact, soil testing labs actually ask what crop is to be grown in the soil and what yield is expected and makes nutrient recommendations accordingly as if feeding the crop is the goal and the soil is just a medium to hold up the plant and a surface upon which to spread the fertilizer.

    It was fascinating to read that modern crop plants have lost some of the ability to use phosphorus in the soil that plants used to have before they were artificially fertilized and bred for fast growth and yield. This is analogous to cattle and sheep that can’t support themselves on forage diets due to genetic selection for unrealistic production goals, without regard to the unintended consequences.
    Just because we can breed such high-yielding plants and animals doesn’t mean it is a good idea in the long term. You can’t fool Mother Nature!

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