Native fungus could hold phosphorus key

Shannon Beattie
By Shannon Beattie
January 17 2022 - 11:00pm
Dr Khalil Kariman, from The UWA School of Agriculture and Environment, with a colony of the native fungus. Photo by Rosanna Candler.

COULD a recently-discovered Australian native fungus be the key to minimising the financial and environmental burdens of synthetic phosphorus fertilisers?

A collaboration between The University of Western Australia's (UWA) School of Agriculture and Environment and the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) plans to find out.

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Almost a decade ago, Khalil Kariman, from UWA, discovered a novel plant fungus symbiosis, dubbed feremycorrhiza, between a native fungus Austroboletus occidentalis and the native jarrah (Eucalyptus marginata) during his PhD studies.

A few years later, he and Zed Rengel, a professor at UWA, together established the fungus' "extraordinary potential" as a novel biofertiliser.

As part of a Grains Research and Development Corporation-funded project, the research team, which also includes DPIRD research scientist Craig Scanlan, are now investigating how to exploit the novel biofertiliser to tackle the global challenge of food security and reduce the use of chemical inputs in agriculture.

Dr Kariman said their studies have shown that the native fungus can boost the phosphorus nutrition of crops such as wheat, barley and even canola in both controlled environment and field conditions.

"This native fungus has the remarkable potential to boost plant growth and nutrition and induce stress tolerance, for example against drought, in host plants," Dr Kariman said.

"This is presumably linked to evolution of the fungus in the nutrient poor and harsh jarrah forest ecosystem of the south west of WA.

"The fungus needed to be resilient to a variety of soil constraints such as nutrient deficiency, in particular phosphorus, high metal contents and pH extremes, as well as environmental stresses such as drought and heat."

It is hoped the research conducted by the team could help minimise the use of synthetic phosphorus fertilisers in agri-ecosystems.

"A major percentage of applied phosphorus fertilisers can be immobilised in soil due to adsorption by soil particles and organic matter, or chemical fixation through binding with metals," Dr Kariman said.

"This leads to an ongoing accumulation of residual phosphorus in crop fields, which is mostly inaccessible to plant roots.

"It is crucial to find an environmentally-friendly solution to tap into this huge residual phosphorus bank in field soils."

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