For too long, the benefits of silicon (Si) was overlooked by plant scientists and agronomists.
According to The University of Western Australia postdoctoral researcher Dr Félix de Tombeur, the world is finally starting to recognise its importance.
Dr de Tombeur said his interest in Si began five years ago, during his PhD in Belgium.
“I was immediately fascinated by this nutrient that is too little considered by plant biologists, even though it provides plenty of benefits to plants,” he said.
Image: Dr Félix de Tombeur in a UWA glasshouse with a recent experiment into how sedges use Si.
In a review published in Plant & Soil, Dr de Tombeur and his research colleagues compiled knowledge about the biotic factors that govern Si mobility in soil-plant systems and translated their potential benefits in agricultural practices.
Although it is not considered an essential nutrient, Dr de Tombeur said he was pleased Si was being increasingly better understood by plant scientists.
“Its beneficial effects for crops resilience against stress is no longer questioned,” he said. Major crops such as rice, sugarcane, wheat, and maize accumulate Si in their tissues.
After being deposited as hydrated amorphous silica in plant tissues, Si helps mitigate several biotic and abiotic stresses, can be used as a plant structural component, and, eventually, increase crop yield.
The review highlighted a future concern: long-term mineral weathering and leaching has resulted in soils with low plant-available Si concentrations in many areas of the world, particularly in tropical and subtropical regions.
While rock-derived Si fertilisers are being applied to counterbalance these detrimental effects, Dr de Tombeur said this was not a long-term solution.
“Although Si fertilisation is increasing worldwide, the time has come to seriously consider biotic factors that can increase Si mobility from soils to plants, and how certain agricultural practices can promote them,” he said.
“Harnessing ecological processes that increase soil Si availability by promoting specific agricultural practices may improve the Si status of crops worldwide, while decreasing the need for non-renewable mineral fertilisers.”
Splitting his time between Australia and France, Dr de Tombeur is working at UWA alongside Emeritus Professor Hans Lambers and with Dr Cyrille Violle at the Centre d'Écologie Fonctionnelle et Evolutive, Montpellier.
His postdoc is part of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship and financed by the European Union