Diagnostic tool for beneficial soil fungi in farmers’ fields

Canadian Organic Science Cluster Success Story

Chantal Hamel, Semiarid Prairie Agricultural Research Centre


Agricultural soils are filled with microorganisms that are responsible for decomposing organic matter and increasing accessibility of nutrients to plants. Some microorganisms form close relationships with plants, improving accessibility to nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates. Among such organisms are the arbuscular mycorrhizal (AM) fungi which form specific associations with plants and have the potential greatly increase the capacity of plants to take up nutrients such as phosphorus. Phosphorus is of great interest in organic farming systems as it is not mobile in the soil, and is difficult to replace if supplies are low. Therefore, it is very important to find out how farmers can manage the mycorrhizae in the soil to optimize phosphorus use by the plant.

The project ‘Characterizing soil phosphorus dynamics and availability under organic crop production’ found that the AM fungi can be managed in cultivated soils.

The AM fungi are a resource naturally present in most cultivated soils of Canada, but the lack of a diagnostic tool for these fungi has prevented the effective management of these important beneficial fungi in crop production.  Although these fungi constitute a whole phylum in the classification of the Fungi, we found that only a dozen species are dominant in agricultural fields from the Rockies to the Atlantic.  We showed that the relative abundance and distribution of these AM fungi in farmers’ fields can be estimated from a standard soil test and a GPS location using a computer model.  We are currently polishing a commercial diagnostic tool to evaluate the health of the communities of these beneficial soil fungi in cultivated Canadian Prairie soils.  This tool should be available for the 2013 growing season.

The Organic Science Cluster is part of the Canadian Agri-Science Clusters Initiative of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Growing Forward Policy Framework and is supported by contributions from industry partners.

Posted March 2012