Thanks to a newly awarded three-year grant of more than $419,000 from the National Science Foundation, Heike BÃƒÂ¼cking, an assistant professor of biology at Rutgers-Camden, is leading a research team exploring the exchange of nutrients in the arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis, a close interaction between plant roots and soil fungi that is essential for the nutrient uptake of approximately 80 percent of all known plant species.
Rutgers-Camden undergraduate and graduate students are joining BÃƒÂ¼cking in this innovative research project.
Traditional agriculture relies on the use of fertilizers to provide the soil with the nutrients needed to grow plants. Such use is not without risks, BÃƒÂ¼cking explains. Farmers frequently apply more fertilizer nutrients than are used by the plants, leading to excess nitrogen and phosphate causing ecological problems by leaching into the groundwater and overfertilizing aquatic ecosystems. This can result in algal blooms, high fish mortality rates, and a variety of other problems while severely reducing the water quality. "We must find ways to improve agricultural assistance,"Â she says.
Since mycorrhizal fungi are more efficient in the uptake of specific nutrients, and more resistant against soil-borne pathogens, interest in using these fungi as "biofertilizers"Â or "bioprotectors"Â is increasing. By promoting the proliferation of mycorrhizal fungi through diminished fertilizer input, farmers would make more efficient use of the nitrogen stores in the soils.
Bucking's research seeks to develop a more thorough understanding of the nutrient exchange processes between these fungi and agricultural environments, which she terms "necessary"Â for successful application of this agricultural innovation.
Though the arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis involves the majority of plant species, much about it remains a mystery. The fungus takes up nutrients such as phosphate and nitrogen for the plant, BÃƒÂ¼cking explains, and, in exchange, is supplied with carbohydrates from the plant. "Our knowledge of the metabolic pathways involved in nitrogen uptake and transfer to the host plant, and about the regulation of these exchange processes between the symbiotic partners, is still limited,"Â she says.
Understanding the exchange of nutrients in the symbiosis is the key to applying fungi as biofertilizers in sustainable agriculture, says BÃƒÂ¼cking. Her research, which will involve one Rutgers-Camden student for each of the project's six semesters, intends to learn how nitrogen is handled in the arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis and how the flux of nitrogen is regulated. Scientists from Michigan State University, New Mexico State University, and the USDA will collaborate on this project.
Bucking teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in microbiology at Rutgers-Camden. She received her doctoral degree from the University of Bremen (Germany). Her research regularly appears in scientific and scholarly journals around the world. -Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey