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Collaborative roots could reduce reliance on phosphorus fertilisers

Roots could reduce reliance on P fertilisers (image provided by Tim George, James Hutton)

A consortium of UK based organisations, including Rothamsted Research, has been awarded funding to look into cropping systems that could harness the phosphorus already available in soils.

Farmers could improve the efficiency of phosphorus in crop production by coupling plants with complementary traits, which would allow them to harness the ‘phosphorus bank’ already present in soils.

Exploring the potential of ‘collaborative roots’ to make organic phosphorus available to plants is the objective of a new £1.2 million, three-year project undertaken by a scientific consortium including the James Hutton Institute, Rothamsted Research and led by Lancaster University.

Phosphorus is a non-renewable resource, essential for crop and food production. Due to inefficient use and limited global reserves, inorganic phosphorus fertilisers will become less economically viable and there are concerns about future supplies. Without action, this situation could undermine agricultural productivity.

Dr Martin Blackwell, Soil Scientist and Principal Investigator on the project at Rothamsted Research said: “This is an exciting opportunity to explore how soil organic phosphorus may be used to supplement inorganic phosphorus fertilisers and improve crop yields with lower inputs, especially in regions where access to fertilisers is limited.”

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.

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.

Professor Phil Haygarth of Lancaster University said: “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.

“It is exciting to be starting this collaborative project with such a strong team, we have potential to make a real difference to the future of food production.”

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.


  • Martin Blackwell
  • Professor Phil Haygarth, Lancaster University and Dr Timothy George, The James Hutton Institute

Notes to Editors

About The James Hutton Institute

The James Hutton Institute is a world-leading, multi-site scientific organisation encompassing a distinctive range of integrated strengths in land, crop, waters, environmental and socio-economic science. It undertakes research for customers including the Scottish and UK Governments, the EU and other organisations worldwide. The institute has a staff of nearly 600 and 125 PhD students.

The Institute takes its name from the 18th century Scottish Enlightenment scientist, James Hutton, who is widely regarded as the founder of modern geology and who was also an experimental farmer and agronomist.

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About Rothamsted Research

We are the longest running agricultural research station in the world, providing cutting-edge science and innovation for over 170 years. Our mission is to deliver the knowledge and new practices to increase crop productivity and quality and to develop environmentally sustainable solutions for food and energy production.

Our strength lies in the integrated, multidisciplinary approach to research in plant, insect and soil science.

Rothamsted Research is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2013-2014 Rothamsted Researched received a total of £32.9M from the BBSRC.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £509M in world-class bioscience in 2014-15. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

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