New Noble scientist focuses research on phosphorus use

Every living organism depends onphosphorus. Supplies of phosphorus are limited. Mining can only provide enough phosphorus to meet demand for another 20 to 30 years.

Wolf Scheible is researching a problem most people do not even know exists.

Scheible, Ph.D., a new principal investigator at the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., comes to the organization from Germany’s esteemed Max-Planck Society. He brings 15 years of research to bear as he explores how plants efficiently use nutrients, especially nitrogen and phosphorus.

Few people give thought to phosphorus or how plants use it, but every living organism depends on this chemical element. It is a building block of life, present in many important biomolecules.

Phosphate, the common natural form of phosphorus, is also a key to production agriculture. Phosphate-enriched fertilizer promotes abundant, healthy, high yielding plants. It is a linchpin for growing food, and the world is running out of readily accessible rock phosphate, the main source of phosphorus fertilizers.

“Governments throughout the world are just recently becoming aware of this serious problem,” Scheible said. “With the global population set to increase from 7 to more than 9 billion in the next 40 years, the demand for food, fiber and plant biomass for energy production will drastically increase and with it, the need for phosphorus.”

The Global Phosphorus Research Institute estimates that mining can only provide enough phosphorus to meet demand for another 20 to 30 years. “You cannot substitute anything else for phosphorus, and you can’t produce food without it,” Scheible said. “We have to think hard and quick about how we are going to reduce our need for this dwindling resource.”

Scheible’s research hopes to develop plants that take up and use phosphate and nitrogen sources more efficiently and reduce the need for applied fertilizers. To achieve this, Scheible must define the relationship between plants and nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus.

A plant will respond to nutrient stresses much like it responds to drought and disease stresses. When a plant requires more phosphate, it signals its roots to grow. When it needs more carbon, it puts out more leaves for photosynthesis. “Shoot-borne signals are likely to be central to understanding a plant’s response to nutrient stress,” Scheible said. “The modulation of such signals will help to improve a plant’s fertilizer uptake and use efficiency.”

Scheible will also examine how wild species manage phosphate uptake and use efficiency. Researchers are aware of areas in Australia and Africa where the soils contain exceptionally low phosphorus, but the plants are thriving. “We want to know what they are doing to survive so well,” he said. “Then we want to transfer that ability to crop plants or develop such plant species into new crops. Efficient plants will be vital to keeping production agriculture going and feeding the world while using fewer inputs.”

Born and raised in Germany, Scheible earned a summa cum laude doctoral degree in natural sciences from the University of Heidelberg (1996) before obtaining a prestigious award to conduct postdoctoral research at Stanford University, Calif. in 2001. Scheible returned to Germany as a principal investigator at the Max-Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology, where he became one of the world’s foremost experts in genomics and genetics of plant nutrition.

“Dr. Scheible is a phenomenal researcher,” said Richard Dixon, D.Phil., director of the Noble Foundation’s Plant Biology Division. “He brings a wealth of experience and insight to the Noble Foundation as we seek to improve plant productivity and sustainability.” 

For Scheible, the chance to come to the Ardmore, Okla., based organization was equally important. “The Noble Foundation offers researchers so many advantages – tremendous facilities, unparalleled support and two other divisions that can move research from the laboratory to the field,” he said.