A closer look at soil-plant interactions and fertilizer impact for turfgrass

15 June 2020
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On the second floor of the Environment Centre Wales (ECW) at Bangor University you will usually find Anna Ray working on her Masters by Research (MRes). Currently working from home due to Covid-19, she is researching soil-plant interactions for turfgrass as affected by fertilizers. A key focus for the research is struvite: a slow-release, sustainable fertilizer that is extracted from wastewater. Professor Davey Jones, supervisor at Bangor University, thinks this could be the way forward: “We grow food, people eat it, we excrete waste, and we extract the nutrients from that. Recycling on this level is revolutionary.”   

Professor Davey Jones runs a research group that covers three main strands: 1) human pathogens and disease, 2) nutrient efficiency and agriculture, and 3) water quality and pollution. He started his career as a soil scientist, moved to a PhD in plant biology at Oxford University, and worked in the USA on soil-plant interactions in the agricultural sector, before his current position at Bangor University in the UK.

Anna spent the first year of her studies in India (with the Open University) and came back to Bangor University to finish her BSc degree. “I came back because Bangor University is good for environmental science”. Since then she has spent many hours in laboratories.  “I did several internships working in ECW, as well as the labs of the Chemistry department. But no matter how much lab experience you gain, there is always something new to learn. New research projects often utilize novel techniques and new instruments I never used before, so it is a constant learning curve.”

This is what the research is all about

Anna researches the impact of phosphorus-based fertilizers on soil-plant interactions. One of the fertilizers she is testing is struvite: a recycled blend of magnesium, ammonium and phosphate that is collected from wastewater. Besides an extensive, scientific literature study – a part of the research that is not impacted by Covid-19 – Anna has planned eight experiments in the duration of her one year of research: 1) a fertilizer toxicity assessment to measure the instant impact of fertilizers to the soil, 2) assessing where the phosphorus (P) is in the soil (sorbed or in solution) using 33P radio-labelled isotopes, 3) assessing whether localized application of P in differing forms enhances root growth, 4) showing P movement in differing fertilizer forms, 5) assessing P deficiency and uptake from a liquid solution, 6) assessing how differing P fertilizers impacts Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi (AMF) abundance, 7) showing how P fertilizers impact the diversity of microbial communities, 8) assessing the rate of Struvite dissolution.

Anna: “At the end of this year’s research, I hope to provide a mechanistic understanding of the soil-plant interactions with different P-based fertilizers for turfgrass along with an explanation for how, specifically, plant-root growth is affected.”

Andy Owen, ICL International Technical Manager says “ICL utilize struvite from a company called Ostara as part of our Sierrablen Plus Pearl product range. We know this recycled product is a sustainable option that also provides real turfgrass benefits. We’re committed to develop products that perform, so we are keen to understand the fertilizer-plant interaction in more detail.  The collaboration with Bangor University allows us to explore the science further and ensures we can be clear in our marketing and communication with our customers.”   

The results until now

Before the lab closed due to Covid-19, Anna managed to work on a 7-day fertilizer and microbial interaction assessment. The trial focused on the microbial activity in the soil and the impact of different fertilizers on it. Microbial communities are a key biological indicator for the soil and plant health, and the impact of fertilizer applications on this community is under-assessed. The work demonstrated that microbial communities can be impacted but they are resilient and recover relatively quickly. Struvite had a similar effect to our control (water) throughout the experiment suggesting it is environmentally friendly. A promising result.”

 Anna's experiment set up in the lab

Why is this research so important?

With the human population and food production rising, using fertilizers is inevitable, but through careful product selection and accurate application, use of fertilizers can be improved and become more efficient. Davey: “Especially in the field where 40% of some nutrients in conventional fertilizers never make it to the crops. It is important to develop sustainable fertilizers, with a minimal environmental impact. Anna’s research will give us a better understanding of how fertilizers impact soil-plant interactions.”  

A day at work

Anna’s office and lab are close to each other and she would usually spend her time in both. There is a lot of experimental work to do when the lab will open again, but Anna also spends many hours behind her computer researching literature, writing up results, producing graphs, etc. Statistics is an important part of Anna’s current job: “It is one thing to make a few graphs, but to really grasp the concept and understand how robust your data is, requires careful analysis. As a researcher, I need to make sure that my results are presented in a clear and understandable way, communication is important.”

Industry involvement

A Masters by Research (MRes) is a one-year research project with the aim of improving our understanding through new science. Anna’s research was funded by a Knowledge Economy Skills Scholarship (KESS 2), which is how Anna was connected to industry partner ICL. The collaboration with ICL gives Anna the opportunity to instantly present her ideas and results to the industry. Anna: “When we are allowed to travel again, I will visit ICL to learn about the industry and present my research. With ICL we discussed the objectives for both parties. It’s a partnership of designing experiments and I think it is important for academics to keep in touch with the industry and its needs.”

The collaboration between academia and industry is an important one as it combines the best of both worlds. Davey agrees: “The industry brings an economical and practical aspect to our research. We could engineer perfect fertilizers, but economically it will probably not work on mass scale. Researchers could gain knowledge that might take another 30 or 40 years before it is of commercial use. This union between academia and industry makes our research instantly valuable and it works perfectly for an urgent market need such as more sustainable fertilizer-solutions.”

Future plans

For the future Davey hopes to continue the research to new and more sustainable fertilizer products and critically evaluate them against conventional products. Davey laughs: “As every scientist will always say: the journey has just started. And it’s true. There is so much more to discover. For instance, we still don’t entirely understand how roots and fertilizers interact and why some fertilizers suppress root growth while others promote it. An answer to these questions will bring us closer to the perfect fertilizer.”

After Anna’s research, she is wary to define her next steps: “There is no point being too specific as you don’t know what will happen. I would like to do a PhD, working towards sustainability for future generations, for instance, looking at regenerative agricultural solutions or potentially research focusing on the natural world. I would also like to explore environmental journalism simultaneously, writing articles that share scientific findings with the general public. We will see what opportunities there are, either way, I hope to contribute to a better world.”