Pitch grass needs less fertilizer than its cousin maize. And therein lies a clue to less polluting crops

January 13th, 2023

The common turf grass that blankets soccer pitches, including those at the recent World Cup in Qatar, contains unexpected clues about how to build more resilient crops that need less fertilizer. 

Wheat, rice and maize: these three staple crops are critical for global nutrition. Yet they also account for an astounding 50% or more of global fertilizer consumption. Turf grass, known formally as Paspalum vaginatum, is actually a relative of maize (and sorghum, another staple grain). And yet, it has traded its cousins’ nutrient-guzzling ways for a more constrained diet, capable of thriving in nitrogen- and phosphorus-depleted soils.

Scientists have long been interested in the roots of its nutritional resilience. But it wasn’t until this University of Nebraska-Lincoln led study compared turf grass to its cousin, maize, that some important clues were found. These discoveries, the researchers think, could profit farmers and take some of its polluting pressure off the planet.


But accumulating trehalose isn’t enough: plants still need nutrients to survive. “The trehalose paspalum (and our treated corn) cannot make new nutrients out of thin air,” said James Schnable, professor in the Department of Agronomy & Horticulture at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, and lead author on the study. So, how then do the plants fill this hungry hole?

The researchers believed that making the jump from increased trehalose to nutrients, and therefore growth in the plants, depends on an additional process called ‘autophagy’. “What we think the trehalose is doing is turning on autophagy, essentially the plant’s natural recycling system, so that the plant can recapture and reuse nutrients that already exist in damaged or unused proteins within its cell, and use those recycled nutrients to keep growing,” Schable explains.

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Story by Emma Bryce | Anthropocene Magazine and Future Earth