ASU ahead on phosphorus sustainability efforts


Margaret Coulombe

Ecologist James Elser was interviewed by Catherine Clabby for her article "Does Peak Phosphorus Loom?,” which examines the global scientific community's concerns about phosphorus, its use and questions about future accessible supply.

 “Our current use of phosphorus is not sustainable,” states Elser, acting dean of the School of Life Sciences and cofounder of the Sustainable P Initiative. He goes on to say that recognition that trouble may be ahead is one reason why Arizona State University has launched its new interdisciplinary research and education program.

Some of the global issues at hand are summed up by American Scientist's Clabby: “in addition to firming up estimates of actual reserves, research is needed to devise better ways to capture and recycle the huge amounts of phosphorus now wasted, whether that be in the water-polluting fertilizer allowed to wash off from agricultural fields; the inedible remains of crops, such as stalks and stems; or human and animal waste.”

Poised to provide leadership and address these concerns, Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative leaders Elser, Daniel Childers, Global Institute of Sustainability, and Mark Edwards, W.P. Carey School of Business are part of the planning committee for the Sustainable Phosphorus Summit to be held on Feb. 3-5, 2011 at ASU. The international gathering, created by ASU graduate students through the Frontiers in Life Sciences program, will include stakeholders in biology, mining, agriculture, social sciences, sustainability and science communication (

One solution alluded to by Elser in Clabby’s article was genetic modification of plants. Such work is being pioneered at ASU by researchers like Roberto Gaxiola, an assistant professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences who is working to engineer food crops such as cassava, and others. “We have colleagues here working on bioengineering approaches that could help plants be better at exploring the soil, better at acidifying the soil and better at grabbing phosphorus,” says Elser.

“Here in the U.S., it’s [phosphorus] been a little slow to catch people’s attention,” another expert notes.

To access the blog and find out more about ASU’s Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative efforts, go to: