Soil Nutrients and Phosphorus: The Molecular View

Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) researchers get a complete picture of how phosphorus moves in the soil at a molecular level and thus a better understanding of how to manage phosphorus fertilizers more effectively. Soil is the base resource of all food on the planet. It is a limited resource that requires extra care and management to ensure a healthy agricultural sector. Learn about how AAFC scientists have been working with producers for the past century to manage and preserve our soils.

This video is the fifth in a series of five videos on the subject of soil which were produced to celebrate the International Year of Soils.

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Video Transcript

[An image and a maple leaf appear on screen. This is the title graphic for the video.]

[Light, electronic music fades in.]

Text on screen: Soil Nutrients and Phosphorus: The Molecular View

[The video opens with a shot of two women walking into a nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy lab.]

[Cut to a shot of Dr. Barbara Cade-Menun standing in front of an NMR machine.]

Dr. Barbara Cade-Menun: My name is Dr. Barbara Cade-Menun...

[Cut to a shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting in front of a computer and pointing to something on the screen.]

...and I am a nutrient cycling scientist...

[Cut to an exterior shot of the Thorvaldson Building on the University of Saskatchewan campus, where Dr. Cade-Menun does much of her lab work.]

...based in Swift Current, Saskatchewan.

[Cut back to Dr. Cade-Menun standing in front of an NMR machine and smiling to camera.]

[Cut to a shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk and speaking slightly off camera.]

Well nutrient cycling is when...

[Cut to an animation of a flower growing and pulling nutrients from the soil then dying away and returning those nutrients to the soil.]

...nutrients are taken up by plants and then eventually returned back to the soil where they're broken down again during the process of decomposition.

[Cut back to the shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk and speaking slightly off camera.]

Text on screen: Dr. Barbara Cade-Menun, Research Scientist, Nutrient Cycling, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada

Phosphorus is and essential element. It's required for all organisms for life. It's part of our DNA, it's part of what gives us energy.

[Cut to a shot of a large wheat field in Saskatchewan. There is a train in the distance.]

In Saskatchewan our soils are naturally high in phosphorus...

[Cut back to the shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk and speaking slightly off camera.]

...because they've developed on the Prairies with a lot of nutrient enrichment going back in...

[Cut to a close up shot of wheat growing in a field.]

...from the grasses that were there.

[Cut to a shot of a tractor harvesting barley.]

But as we start growing successive crops...

[Cut to a long shot of two huge combines harvesting a large wheat field.]

...we draw down our supplies of readily available phosphorus.

[Cut back to the shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk and speaking slightly off camera.]

We have a lot of phosphorus there it's just not in a form that the plant can take up.

[Cut to a shot of a row of large silos used for storing fertilizer.]

Phosphorus fertilizer is a limited resource because it's mined from rocks.

[Cut back to the shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk and speaking slightly off camera.]

And so we're going to run out of it at some point.

[Cut to a shot of a tractor loading biosolids into a spreader for field application.]

What we need to do is to start recapturing...

[Cut to a shot of those biosolids being applied to the field.]

...what is lost in waste from manure and human sewage sludge.

[Cut back to the shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk and speaking slightly off camera.]

We may not necessarily want to apply sludge directly but why can't we recapture that phosphorus chemically...

[Cut to a close up shot of some of the equipment that Dr. Cade-Menun uses to prepare her phosphorus samples for the NMR machine.]

...and find some way to convert that back...

[Cut to a shot of some of the specialized equipment used with the NMR machine.]

...into the fertilizer pellets that we know.

[Cut back to the shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk and speaking slightly off camera.]

We can be much more strategic about what we apply...

[Cut to a shot of Dr. Cade-Menun working to prepare phosphorus samples for the NMR machine.]

...but we can also explore other forms of phosphorus that are there, getting plants to use the native forms of phosphorus instead of importing something, or microbes that may help the plants use more.

[Cut to a close up shot of two test tubes; one contains a freeze dried sample of field runoff, and the other contains a similar sample but it has been reconstituted with water.]

Narrator: The development of Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Spectroscopy technology has allowed Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada scientists...

[Cut to a shot of Dr. Cade-Menun adding water to the freeze dried runoff samples.]

...to understand phosphorus at a molecular level.

[Cut to a close up shot of Dr. Cade-Menun adding water to the freeze dried runoff samples.]

By understanding the cycle, researchers get a complete picture of how phosphorus moves...

[Cut to a close of up Dr. Cade-Menun securing the runoff samples inside a large machine that spins them around to make sure they are completely mixed.]

...and thus get a better understanding of how to manage phosphorus more effectively.

[Cut to a shot of Dr. Cade-Menun closing the lid on the machine and pressing the start button.]

[Cut to a shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk and working on a computer.]

[Cut to two shots of streams of water.]

The goal is to make phosphorus usage more efficient and environmentally friendly by reducing the amount of phosphorus lost each year from agricultural lands due to water runoff.

[Cut to a shot of the entrance to the Saskatchewan Structural Sciences Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.]

This soil research is made possible by a partnership between AAFC and the Saskatchewan Structural Sciences Centre at the University of Saskatchewan.

[Cut to a time lapse shot of people working in the NMR lab at the University of Saskatchewan.]

With a probe purchased by the department...

[Cut to a shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk examining a probe.]

...Dr. Cade-Menun uses the nuclear magnetic resonance machines at the University...

[Cut to a shot of Dr. Cade-Menun inserting a probe into one of the NMR machines.]

...to test her soil and runoff samples.

[Cut back to the shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk and speaking slightly off camera.]

Dr. Barbara Cade-Menun: We can take a sample and put it in a tube.

[Cut to a shot of the NMR machine.]

So we're concentrating the phosphorus.

[Cut to a shot of Dr. Cade-Menun putting one of the glass test tubes into the NMR machine.]

We put it in a tube and then into the machine and that allows us to generate...

[Cut back to the shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk and speaking slightly off camera.]

...a spectrum...

[Cut to a close up shot of the computer behind Dr. Cade-Menun to show the spectrum readout from the NMR machine.]

...which identifies the specific forms of phosphorus that are in there.

[Cut back to the shot of Dr. Cade-Menun sitting at a desk and speaking slightly off camera.]

Understanding ways to try to use exactly what we need in the form that we need it will help to make our fertilizer use more efficient.

[Cut to a close of shot of dried, mature canola in a field.]

Narrator: Knowing how to use phosphorus fertilizers more efficiently and understanding how a plant uses existing soil phosphorus...

[Cut to a shot of a bright yellow canola field.]

...will help us to minimize phosphorus loss from agricultural lands, thereby minimizing the impacts of agriculture on the environment all while saving farmers money.

[Cut to a different close up shot of dried, mature canola in a field.]

To learn more, check out our other videos on soil science in Canada.

[Cut to a different shot of a bright, yellow canola field.]

[Cut to a close up shot of yellow canola flowers.]

[Fade to white.]

[Fade up from white.]

[The logo for the 2015 International Year of Soils fades up.]

Text on screen: 2015 International Year of Soils, http://www.fao.org/soils-2015, #IYS2015

[Cut to the end graphic for the video.]

Text on screen: Modern. Innovative. Growing. Discover other agricultural innovations at www.agr.gc.ca

[Cut to the animated Canada wordmark.]

Text on screen. Canada. © Her Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food (2015)

[Light, electronic music fades out.]

[Fade to black.]

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