Saving phosphorus, a salvage job


Sandra Leander

Phosphorus is an essential nutrient for life. It is added to fields to help farmers boost their crops and feed the growing number of humans on Earth.

Yet this critical rock is increasingly scarce. It is commonly overused in agricultural fields, which leads to polluted streams and lakes.  Without a change in attitudes of policy-makers, research ingenuity and sustainable strategies, this essential component to life on Earth may join oil on the "endangered species" list.

In an online article posted on Science News Feb. 7, writer Roberta Kwok takes an in depth look at phosphorus – why we need it, how we waste it, and what we can do to reduce the demand for it, as well as find sustainable policies for our future.

In the article, James Elser, a professor in Arizona State University's School of Life Sciences, says it's time to draw attention to the problem.

"I call it the biggest problem you've never heard of," says Elser, an ecologist and co-organizer of the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative at ASU.

In addition, Kwok highlights research done by Roberto Gaxiola, an ASU molecular biologist in the School of Life Sciences and investigator with the Sustainable Phosphorus Initiative. Kwok writes:

"In one effort to recover phosphorus, Gaxiola is now coaxing plants to slurp up more phosphorus from the Earth. If Gaxiola can get plants to grow bigger roots, they would release more protons, which would acidify the soil. Extra acide frees some phosphorus into a form that plants can take up."

The author details this idea and additional research that may help form a closed phosphorus cycle – something Elser says must happen to create a sustainable future. The print edition of the article will be available Feb. 23.