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Plant and microbial strategies to improve the phosphorus efficiency of agriculture



Agricultural production is often limited by low phosphorus (P) availability. In developing countries, which have limited access to P fertiliser, there is a need to develop plants that are more efficient at low soil P. In fertilised and intensive systems, P-efficient plants are required to minimise inefficient use of P-inputs and to reduce potential for loss of P to the environment.


Three strategies by which plants and microorganisms may improve P-use efficiency are outlined: (i) Root-foraging strategies that improve P acquisition by lowering the critical P requirement of plant growth and allowing agriculture to operate at lower levels of soil P; (ii) P-mining strategies to enhance the desorption, solubilisation or mineralisation of P from sparingly-available sources in soil using root exudates (organic anions, phosphatases), and (iii) improving internal P-utilisation efficiency through the use of plants that yield more per unit of P uptake.


We critically review evidence that more P-efficient plants can be developed by modifying root growth and architecture, through manipulation of root exudates or by managing plant-microbial associations such as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi and microbial inoculants. Opportunities to develop P-efficient plants through breeding or genetic modification are described and issues that may limit success including potential trade-offs and trait interactions are discussed. Whilst demonstrable progress has been made by selecting plants for root morphological traits, the potential for manipulating root physiological traits or selecting plants for low internal P concentration has yet to be realised.

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The authors thank Mark Conyers, Peter Cornish, Keith Helyar and Peter Randall for critical discussion of the ideas expressed in this paper. FAS and SES wish to acknowledge the Australian Research Council, the South Australian Grain Industry Trust and the Waite Research Institute for research support and AO thanks Else Bünemann and Emmanuel Frossard for stimulating discussions. Preparation of the review was funded in part by Meat and Livestock Australia Ltd and CSIRO’s National Research Flagships Program’s Flagship Collaboration Fund which aims to enhance collaboration between CSIRO’s Flagships, Australian universities and other publicly-funded research agencies.

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Correspondence to Alan E. Richardson.

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Richardson, A.E., Lynch, J.P., Ryan, P.R. et al. Plant and microbial strategies to improve the phosphorus efficiency of agriculture. Plant Soil 349, 121–156 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11104-011-0950-4

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  • Carboxylate
  • Inoculant
  • Mineralisation
  • Mycorrhizas
  • Organic anion
  • Phosphatase
  • Rhizosphere
  • Roots
  • Solubilisation