Researchers from Salamanca develop a new product for the fertilization of wheat

Wheat fields. / reuters

The ‘Trichoderma’ fungus combined with traditional chemical fertilizer will reduce pollution caused by the use of nitrogen in agriculture

The Phytopathology and Biological Control Group of the Unit of Excellence for Agricultural Production and the Environment AGRIENVIRONMENT and the Agrobiotechnology Research Institute (CIALE), of the University of Salamanca, have started a project that aims to achieve a new product that will combine the traditional inorganic chemical fertilizer and the ‘Trichoderma’ fungus, a natural biostimulant. This innovation, unprecedented in the market, will be tested in wheat crops and will reduce the use of nitrogen in agriculture, replacing it in part with a microorganism that provides good results as a biofertilizer, according to information collected by the DiCYT Agency.

For the development of this initiative, the team led by Enrique Monte has just obtained funding corresponding to the call for Strategic Projects Aimed at Ecological Transition and Digital Transition, within the State Plan for Scientific, Technical and Innovation Research for the period 2021 -2023, within the framework of the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan.

Microscope image of the fungus ‘Trichoderma’. /

Henry Mount

Finding alternatives to nitrogenous fertilizers is very urgent, especially in this country, since the European Commission decided to take Spain to the Court of Justice of the European Union for not having adopted sufficient measures to reduce this type of pollution. “The excess nitrogen that the plant does not capture remains in the soil, goes to the aquifers, pollutes and can cause health problems,” Enrique Monte told DiCYT.

However, reducing the dose, without more, would lead to a drop in production, something that farmers cannot afford if they want to maintain profitability. In addition, in the current circumstances, there is a high demand because the war in Ukraine endangers imports of cereals, a crop that is especially important in Castilla y León.

project based on experience

The Phytopathology and Biological Control Group has already worked on previous projects that have revealed that the application of ‘Trichoderma’ is very beneficial for crops. In fact, they have the first record in Spain of this fungus for its commercial application as a biological control agent, specifically, as a fungicide. However, “when there are no diseases to control, the plant dedicates its energies to growing, so it also has a biostimulant effect and, therefore, a very good alternative to reduce the use of inorganic chemical fertilizer, based on nitrogen” , highlights the researcher.

Recently, legislation has opened the door to the combination of traditional fertilizer and microorganisms in the same product, but experimentation is required, so until now ‘Trichoderma’ has not been marketed for this purpose. However, CIALE scientists have already taken very important steps. In a previous project funded by the Salamanca Provincial Council and in collaboration with the Mirat Fertilizers company from Salamanca, they demonstrated that some strains of this fungus could be combined with chemical fertilizer. They even carried out field trials with the ACOR cooperative. The issue is not as simple as it might seem, because “if chemical and biological fertilizers are combined, the first can damage the second, so we have to carry out an experimental study to obtain the final product,” explains Enrique Monte. For this reason, now the new project aims to give the definitive push to this idea.

For this reason, the researchers are going to carry out compatibility tests on the inorganic fertilizer with the microorganism and, together with Mirat, they will develop the product through which both are applied at the same time. Specifically, the experiment will focus on the background fertilizer that is applied to the wheat crop before sowing. However, the experts are convinced that the new biofertilizer will also be able to give good results in other crops, not only in the cereal from Castilla y León.

Help against drought

In addition, the project has a second part that aims to evaluate the effectiveness of the new product in drought conditions. “We are going to apply this formulation under hydric stress, in an experiment in which we will stop irrigating,” explains Enrique Monte. “In our environment there is a lot of rainfed cereal that can suffer severe droughts, so we want to see how ‘Trichoderma’ helps the plant,” he adds. Previous studies have already shown that this beneficial fungus makes crops better withstand the absence of water, but now it is a question of analyzing whether it also works when combined with traditional fertilizer, in the same product. Precisely, this year the field has suffered a severe drought and climate change models indicate that these situations can be repeated frequently in the future, so this aspect of the research can also be very interesting for farmers.