News Release

University of Sheffield study shows potential to reduce reliance on non-renewable fertilisers in agriculture

Peer-Reviewed Publication

University of Sheffield

  • An enzyme which can release organic forms of phosphorus in the environment has been identified by researchers at the University of Sheffield
  • Phosphorus is an essential nutrient which promotes healthy plant and animal growth and is relied upon as a fertiliser by global food production systems
  • Agriculture is the biggest consumer of non-renewable inorganic phosphorus world-wide, and limited supplies threaten global food security, biodiversity and climate regulation
  • PafA is a widely distributed enzyme in the environment and therefore represents an overlooked resource in the phosphorus cycle

An enzyme that can help release phosphorus from its organic forms has been identified in a study from the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food, published in leading science journal PNAS.

The enzyme has the potential to help reduce the consumption of phosphate chemical fertilisers which global food production systems rely on, but are produced by the mining of non-renewable and increasingly expensive inorganic sources of rock phosphate.

All organisms on Earth, plants and animals, require phosphorus for healthy growth and development, but the continued use of the limited stocks of non-renewable phosphorus chemical fertilisers in agriculture threatens crop yields and the sustainability of our global food production systems. Agriculture is the biggest consumer of non-renewable phosphorus, so its limited supply has important implications for global food security, biodiversity and climate regulation. 

The most simple form of phosphorus in use in fertilisers is non-renewable inorganic phosphate, as unfortunately the availability of organic phosphate nutrients in the environment is often low enough to limit natural plant and algae growth.

In the ocean and soil, most of the total phosphorus exists in complex organic forms, which requires enzymes, commonly known as phosphatases, to release the phosphate so that plants and algae can use it as a nutrient.

Researchers at the University’s Institute for Sustainable Food have identified a unique bacterial phosphatase abundant in the environment called PafA, that can efficiently release the phosphate used in fertilisers from its organic forms.

The study used a Flavobacterium model to look at the PafA function in vivo and showed it can rapidly mineralise naturally occurring organic phosphate independently of phosphate level, a process which is was found to be inhibited with other common enzymes such as PhoX and PhoA phosphatases, especially if there are already residual levels of phosphate around. 

Dr Ian Lidbury, from the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food and Arthur Willis Environmental Research Centre, said: “The accumulation of phosphate can inhibit enzyme activity in the most common phosphatases, but PafA is unique in that its function does not suffer when phosphate accumulates. 

“As there is a high occurrence and diversity of PafA in the environment, both on land and aquatic environments, this makes it a valuable overlooked resource for finding ways to help plants and animals more efficiently capture essential nutrients, and will be crucial to help us reducing our reliance on - and the damage caused by rapidly using up - the world's limited stocks of non-renewable chemical phosphorus fertilisers.

“Our further research will investigate how PafA functions, as Flavobacterium forms appear to be particularly active compared to others. So understanding this is crucial for us to be able to engineer optimised enzymes for use in agriculture.”

The team are now working to investigate what makes certain forms of PafA more active than others, with the goal of designing an enzyme that can be used to promote sustainable agriculture, through providing more readily available organic sources of phosphorus for plants, with the potential to introduce it into animal feeds.



Media contact: Rebecca Ferguson, Media Relations Officer, 0114 222 3670,

Notes to editors:

  • To read the full study, go to

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in and develop solutions to society’s biggest challenges.

Sheffield researchers use their expertise to tackle some of the biggest issues of our time together with partners ranging from SMEs to some of the world’s biggest companies, from across the South Yorkshire region, the UK and beyond.

The University of Sheffield provides an outstanding student experience for its students, with the number one Students’ Union in the UK and both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees that help its students stand out in the jobs market and develop successful careers after graduation, wherever they choose to live and work.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.

The Institute for Sustainable Food

This research is part of the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food which brings together multidisciplinary expertise and world-class research facilities to help achieve food security and protect the natural resources we all depend on.

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