When three is not a crowd: Tapping fungi for crop fertilisers

Phosphate fertiliser, fungus,
The fungi, arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM), could manipulate a specific group of soil bacteria to enrich the soil with nutrients that are required by the plant | Image - Eunice Dhivya

Soil bacteria such as Azotobacter can capture nitrogen from the air and convert it into a form soluble in water and fix it in the soil—we know that. We also know that some fungi enter into a marriage with plants, consume nutrients from the plant cells and in return, ingest minerals absorbed from the soil into the plant. Both benefit from the mutual cooperation.

What researchers led by Maria Harrison, the William H Crocker Professor at Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), found recently is that the fungi, arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM), could manipulate a specific group of soil bacteria to enrich the soil with nutrients that are required by the plant. In turn, the fungi host the bacteria and treat them with the nourishments they receive from the plants. Her co-researchers in the study were former BTI scientists Bryan Emmett and Véronique Lévesque-Tremblay.

This seems something like in the imagined ancient society where without money, a farmer would trade a sack of grain with the blacksmith for tools. The blacksmith dealt this grain with a fisherwoman.

The plant, the fungi, and the bacteria, researchers say, play a tango, each aiding the other and benefiting from the arrangement. The findings suggest that we can help devise alternatives to conventional fertilisers to enrich the soil and improve crop yields that are cost-effective and eco-friendly.

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