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Feeding the world through the use of nanoparticles

Research scientists in the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis developed a way to reduce the use of fertilizer, specifically phosphorus, and still see improvements in the growth of food crops using zinc oxide nanoparticles.

The research was published on April 7, 2016, in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. It is supposedly the first study to show how to mobilize native phosphorus in the soil using zinc oxide nanoparticles over the entire life cycle of the mung bean, according to Science News Online. The mung bean is grown primarily in China, Southeast Asia and India.

Ten days ago, Digital Journal ran a story on the need for intensified farming in the near future in order to feed our growing world population. It was noted that an increased use of fertilizers in tropical regions of the globe would be required because of the lack of sufficient native phosphorus in the soils in these regions.

In the current research paper, Ramesh Raliya, a research scientist, and Pratim Biswas, the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor and chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, acknowledge that crops need phosphorus to grow, being one of three essential components of fertilizer, the other two being nitrogen and potassium.

However, they say that farmers are using more and more fertilizers to produce greater crop yields to feed the growing population. They point out that plants can only use 42 percent of the phosphorus that is applied to the soil. The rest of it is washed away into streams and rivers. The resulting pollution creates harmful algae growths.

But there is also a limited supply of phosphorus in the world. “If farmers use the same amount of phosphorus as they’re using now, the world’s supply will be depleted in about 80 years,” Raliya said. “Now is the time for the world to learn how to use phosphorus in a more sustainable manner.”

And these concerns prompted the team to figure out how to use the zinc oxide nanoparticles. They made the particles from a fungus that grows around the plant’s roots. The fungus helps the plant to take up nutrients and utilize them. Zinc is also needed for plant growth because zinc interacts with three enzymes to break down the phosphorus to a form the plants can utilize, reports Science Daily.

“Due to climate change, the daily temperature and rainfall amounts have changed,” Raliya said. “When they changed, the microflora in the soil are also changed, and once those are depleted, the soil phosphorus can’t mobilize the phosphorus, so the farmer applies more. Our goal is to increase the activity of the enzymes by several-fold, so we can mobilize the native phosphorus several-fold.”

The premise of this research is similar to a story reported in Digital Journal in November 2015. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide were combined in nanoparticles and used to grow tomato plants.

According to the Digital Journal article, “The two metal components also conferred other benefits in addition to acting as an enzymatic catalyst. Zinc provides nutrients and titanium aids photosynthesis by helping with light absorption, via increasing chlorophyll content in leaves.”

China and India use 45 percent of the phosphorus used in Agriculture today. And in regions of the world where phosphorus is at low levels naturally in the soil, more fertilizers need to be used. If zinc oxide nanoparticles are proven to be effective on a large scale,this will help to ease the burden of intensified farming.

This research paper, “Enhancing the Mobilization of Native Phosphorus in the Mung Bean Rhizosphere Using ZnO Nanoparticles Synthesized by Soil Fungi,” was published in the online journal, Agriculture and Food Chemistry.

Written By

Karen Graham is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for environmental news. Karen's view of what is happening in our world is colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in man's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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