As the global population continues to rise over the years, so does the need for food. As farmers work hard to satisfy the demand for food production, more and more phosphorus – a vital fertilizer ingredient – is absorbed by the soil.

The problem, however, is that plants can only take in so much of this ingredient. Soil that has been overworked loses its microflora biodiversity and the enzymes that help phosphorus absorption, so dumping more phosphorus into the soil does no good.

The excess phosphorus gets washed away as runoff, pollutes waterways, and triggers lethal algal blooms all over the world.

Another problem: the world's supply of phosphorus is depleting. Ramesh Raliya, a scientist from Washington University in St. Louis (WUSL), Missouri, said that if the agricultural industry uses the same amount of phosphorus being used now, the supply will be depleted in just 80 years.

It's clearly a domino effect, so it has prompted scientists to look for more sustainable ways to satisfy the demand for food production while at the same time, save the world's phosphorus supply and minimize fertilizer waste absorbed by the soil.

Fortunately, such a method has been developed by Raliya and other WUSL scientists, taking advantage of zinc oxide nanoparticles taken from a fungus. These nanoparticles could potentially boost food production and allow scientists to attain those two other goals.

The Magic Of Zinc Oxide Nanoparticles

Why did WUSL researchers use zinc oxide nanoparticles? Zinc has the ability to interact with three vital enzymes and convert complex phosphorus in soil into a simplified version – something that plants can actually use.

When Raliya and his colleagues applied zinc oxide nanoparticles to leaves of the mung bean plant, the nanoparticles increased phosphorus uptake by almost 11 percent and the activity of the three enzymes by 84 to 108 percent.

When the enzyme activity increases, there is no need to inject phosphorus into the soil because it's already there, but not in the available form for the plant itself to absorb. With the help of nanoparticles, the process becomes much better as it mobilizes the complex phosphorus to an available form.

Hope For The Future

Raliya and his colleagues hope to apply their technology in developing countries, especially in Asia. In fact, 45 percent of the global use of phosphorus for agriculture is in China and India. What's more, the mung bean plant grows mainly in southeast Asia, India, and China.

"If this crop can grow in a more sustainable manner, it will be helpful for everyone," added Raliya.

The findings of the study are featured in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

Photo : David Masters | Flickr

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