Accelerate research on phosphorus | College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

North Carolina state soil fertility specialist Luke Gatiboni recently took over one of America’s oldest fertility research projects: a small but important project that has guided the applications of fertilizer from North Carolina farmers for nearly 60 years.

For most of those years, this long-standing study used traditional technologies and research methods to develop fertilizer recommendations for North Carolina crops. But since last week, this work should be amplified at almost every level.

Gatiboni and 23 other researchers from the state of North Carolina are officially part of a new research center that will foster the development of cutting-edge technologies and use a vast interdisciplinary network of researchers to focus on one of the biggest problems facing agriculture and our global society today: phosphorus. Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for plants. And by some estimates, the global supply of mined phosphorus will tighten dramatically over the next century, leading to possible price increases for a resource on which most of the world’s farmers depend. Meanwhile, overexploitation of phosphorus is now creating dead zones in water bodies around the world and polluting groundwater.

To help tackle these phosphorus problems, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has launched a new Science and Technology Center for Phosphorus Sustainability (STEPS) headquartered at the NC State University Plant Sciences Building, which is expected to be built. be completed in early 2022..

The new center will be a hub for cutting-edge interdisciplinary research that will ultimately reduce the environmental impacts of phosphorus while preserving our dwindling phosphorus supply by finding ways to develop more efficient fertilizers, design new varieties of plants that need less phosphorus and to discover new ways to capture and recycle the used phosphorus dispersed in agricultural lands, rivers and urban centers around the world.

The $ 25 million center is supported by an initial renewable five-year grant and will be led by two faculty members from the State of North Carolina: Jacob Jones, director of the STEPS center and professor of science and engineering of materials at North Carolina State; and Ross Sozzani, professor of plant and microbial biology at NC State and deputy co-director of the center.

“The fact that this center integrates engineering with scientists from agriculture, life, physics and social sciences allows us to advance research while respecting the scope of the phosphorus problem and the constraints of the system, ”Jones said.

A two-way collaboration

In 2019, shortly after Gatiboni took over NC State’s 56-year-old soil fertility project, he was unexpectedly contacted by phosphorus researchers who were already part of the STEPS task force, before he does not become a center. They called on Gatiboni’s expertise for an agricultural study on the effects of phosphorus fertilization in soils and plants.

This conversation would lead to a strong collaboration here at NC State, one that would take Gatiboni’s long-running project to a new level and help solidify NC State’s leading role in the STEPS center.

Gatiboni, a new soil expert at the university at the time, had the expertise and the resources for his long-term study; but he needed a collaborator for the plant component of the study. Soon after, Gatiboni met Rubén Rellán Álvarez, assistant professor of molecular and structural biochemistry at NC State, who was studying how different varieties of corn react to phosphorus. The objective of the Rellán Álvarez study: to identify the molecular and genetic mechanisms that make certain plant varieties more efficient in phosphorus.

Ruben Rellán Álvarez (left) and Luke Gatiboni (right)

The two began to collaborate. Gatiboni shared his long-term research plots at Tidewater Research Station in Plymouth, where he studies the effects of fertilization on crop yields and phosphorus accumulation in soils, and Rellán Álvarez has brought populations of corn with different genetics and phosphorus absorption capacities.

For Rellán Álvarez, the collaboration would provide more data and understanding on how corn crops acquire and use phosphorus, as well as the genetic variations in corn varieties that govern these processes. The collaboration would also give Rellán Álvarez the opportunity to be part of a historical and significant study.

“Long-term field experiences provide considerable information on the dynamics of soil phosphorus fertilization and provide a guideline for actions we can take in the future,” said Rellán Álvarez. “This is a great example of data-driven research directly related to farmers in North Carolina. We are sitting on the shoulders of giants through this study.

For Gatiboni, the partnership could help him to better understand the dynamics of phosphorus in the soil-plant and to develop improved strategies and methods to optimize the phosphorus fertilization of crops.

“Using this site together will be very beneficial,” Gatiboni said. “We are now looking at more things at once. I was looking for one variety per year. Now Ruben brings in several – 500 to 700 – genetic varieties of corn. We can have more answers at the same time. It’s about harnessing the amount of data and the amount of knowledge that we can get.

North Carolina producers will also benefit from the collaboration of Gatiboni and Rellán Álvarez. In addition to improved fertilizer recommendations, their work could eventually lead to new varieties of plants that efficiently use phosphorus.

A collaboration of many

With the STEPS center now operational, Gatiboni and Rellán Álvarez are now part of a much larger interdisciplinary research collaboration of 40 senior researchers leading teams focused on specific areas of phosphorus research.

“It’s amazing how diverse this group is; everyone is working on the same problem from different angles, ”said Gatiboni. “I’m interested in soil and plant health and fertilization management to make both sides sustainable. Ruben looks at the features. Upstream from agriculture, we have materials science specialists who seek to capture phosphorus in urban waterways; we have soil chemistry experts doing critical research on how phosphorus interacts with soil and developing new phosphorus fertilizers; we have colleagues from Arizona State studying phosphorus uptake in human urine; and we have people looking at how society is responding to the phosphorus problem. This is only part of the job. “

The STEPS center will also employ post-doctoral fellows, Ph.D. and master’s level students to work on different aspects of research.

“STEPS connects us with a phenomenal diversity of other scientists who are studying other interesting areas of opportunity,” said Rellán Álvarez. “When we combine all of this work and these insights, we can get a much better idea of ​​the phosphorus cycle. This doesn’t mean that all the scientists are going to do the work together, but we are all going to share the results together. In this regard, it is huge.

Gatiboni, Rellán Álvarez and other STEPS collaborators will also benefit from newly developed equipment. A team of engineers from the STEPS network is developing new tools and technologies to advance phosphorus research, including sensors capable of detecting phosphorus levels in soil, water and plants, all in real time.

“If we can make it work, we can directly see these phosphorus levels in the field as they change, which will allow us to better manage these crops,” said Gatiboni. “And if the real-time sensors work, devices that deliver phosphorus where and when it’s needed will soon follow. “

A group from the STEPS center will also be dedicated to education and awareness, helping to ensure that the sustainable solutions, technologies and practices developed by Rellán Álvarez, Gatiboni and other collaborators are applied to farms, urban centers, roads waterways and other areas. of importance for the sustainable management of phosphorus.

The advantage of the NC state

NC State University Plant Science Building, with over 100,000 gross square feet of laboratory and greenhouse space, three main laboratories with some of the world’s most advanced equipment, a high-speed network to support load of huge amounts of data generated by research and staff supporting cutting-edge research – was a natural fit for the STEPS Center headquarters.

Through the NC State Plant Sciences Building, Gatiboni and other researchers working in the STEPS center will have access to the new facility’s advanced growth chambers, greenhouses and state-of-the-art equipment and its large interdisciplinary team of experts.

The NC State Plant Science Building

“We will be using the facility a lot,” Gatiboni said. “In my case, we’ll be using the building’s growth chambers and forward greenhouses for our small plant experiments. This is in addition to our research plots at Tidewater station.

“I am particularly excited to use the new satellite facility of the Genomic Science Lab (GSL), which will be located in the building,” said Rellán Álvarez. “Their new LGC Oktopure sequencing device can process hundreds of DNA tissue samples every day at full speed. This, along with GSL’s new OmeSeq genotype sequencing protocol, developed here at NC State, will facilitate the establishment of associations with the genomes and phosphorus-related traits of interest to us.

Gatiboni and Rellán Álvarez will also work closely with other North Carolina State staff housed in the North Carolina State Plant Science Building, including the Deputy Co-Director of STEPS, Ross Sozzani, to study how the efficiency of phosphorus use is controlled at the level of gene regulation.

Sozzani is also director of the NC Plant Sciences Initiative (NC PSI) Plant Breeding Platform, which brings together the best minds from academia, government and industry to conduct research and innovation vital to solve the biggest problems in agriculture by increasing crop yields, creating new plant varieties, lengthening growing seasons, developing and improving technologies and improving agricultural sustainability and environmental.

NC PSI can support the STEPS center with additional equipment in the plant science building, its close links with all 18 research stations in North Carolina State, North Carolina, as well as potential new collaborators at universities , government and industry.

“The NC PSI is great for collaborations; they are very well connected and their head office is located in the North Carolina State Plant Science Building, which makes them an extremely important resource for anyone working with the STEPS center, ”said Gatiboni.


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