Plant and Soil

, Volume 245, Issue 1, pp 35–47 | Cite as

Root exudates as mediators of mineral acquisition in low-nutrient environments

  • Felix D. Dakora
  • Donald A. Phillips


Plant developmental processes are controlled by internal signals that depend on the adequate supply of mineral nutrients by soil to roots. Thus, the availability of nutrient elements can be a major constraint to plant growth in many environments of the world, especially the tropics where soils are extremely low in nutrients. Plants take up most mineral nutrients through the rhizosphere where micro-organisms interact with plant products in root exudates. Plant root exudates consist of a complex mixture of organic acid anions, phytosiderophores, sugars, vitamins, amino acids, purines, nucleosides, inorganic ions (e.g. HCO3, OH, H+), gaseous molecules (CO2, H2), enzymes and root border cells which have major direct or indirect effects on the acquisition of mineral nutrients required for plant growth. Phenolics and aldonic acids exuded directly by roots of N2-fixing legumes serve as major signals to Rhizobiaceae bacteria which form root nodules where N2 is reduced to ammonia. Some of the same compounds affect development of mycorrhizal fungi that are crucial for phosphate uptake. Plants growing in low-nutrient environments also employ root exudates in ways other than as symbiotic signals to soil microbes involved in nutrient procurement. Extracellular enzymes release P from organic compounds, and several types of molecules increase iron availability through chelation. Organic acids from root exudates can solubilize unavailable soil Ca, Fe and Al phosphates. Plants growing on nitrate generally maintain electronic neutrality by releasing an excess of anions, including hydroxyl ions. Legumes, which can grow well without nitrate through the benefits of N2 reduction in the root nodules, must release a net excess of protons. These protons can markedly lower rhizosphere pH and decrease the availability of some mineral nutrients as well as the effective functioning of some soil bacteria, such as the rhizobial bacteria themselves. Thus, environments which are naturally very acidic can pose a challenge to nutrient acquisition by plant roots, and threaten the survival of many beneficial microbes including the roots themselves. A few plants such as Rooibos tea (Aspalathus linearis L.) actively modify their rhizosphere pH by extruding OH and HCO3 to facilitate growth in low pH soils (pH 3 – 5). Our current understanding of how plants use root exudates to modify rhizosphere pH and the potential benefits associated with such processes are assessed in this review.

low nutrients nod genes organic acids phenolics phytosiderophores root exudates symbiotic microbes 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2002

Authors and Affiliations

  • Felix D. Dakora
    • 1
  • Donald A. Phillips
    • 2
  1. 1.Research DevelopmentCape TechnikonCape TownSouth Africa
  2. 2.Department of Agronomy and Range ScienceUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA

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