Skip to main content

New insights into phosphorus (P) acquisition strategies by quantifying untargeted metabolites in dryland soils

EMSL Project ID


Earth’s Critical Zone (CZ) plays a key role in sustaining life through carbon, water, and nutrient cycling from the top of the canopy to groundwater. A key feature of critical zone research is to apply many interdisciplinary techniques simultaneously. An emerging set of techniques that can add to this approach is the field of metabolomics, the quantification, and study of comprehensive metabolite profiles. As a part of the Dryland Critical Zone Collaborative Network (CZCN), this proposed study focuses on using metabolomics to address knowledge gaps regarding the availability and biogeochemistry of phosphorus (P) in carbonate-dominated Chihuahuan Desert soils. We are interested to see how organic acids and other compound classes may help plants, microbes, and biocrusts acquire P. Specifically, we will investigate whether soil metabolite profiles in natural drylands will respond to supplemental P additions in a field setting. Plants acquire P through various mechanisms, including rhizodeposition of organic acids, which has been a focal compound class in targeted analysis. However, several other compound classes such as sugars, enzymes, as well as acids that are more rarely quantified (i.e., other than citric, malic, and oxalic) that can be released by these various soil organisms may also affect P availability. Hence, examination of complete soil metabolite profiles has the potential to greatly improve our understanding of P availability in this type of organic-poor, calcite-rich, alkaline soils that cover a large portion of Earth’s surface. The study site for this proposed research is located in the northern Chihuahuan Desert. We have collected soil cores (0-10 cm) from three sites across different landforms, parent material, and microhabitats (under-plant and interspace). We will also collect samples from a P addition experiment. We have soil subsamples of soil cores (0-10 cm) from control and phosphorus addition (20 g P m-2 year-1 in the form of Triple Super Phosphate) treatments (each treatment has 8 replicates, and each replicate is set in a 2×2 m plot). On both of these data sets, we will, in collaboration with EMSL, examine soil metabolite profiles using a combined approach of high-resolution mass spectrometry (MS) and NMR spectroscopy (Omics and Mass Spectrometry for Metabolomics Instrument & Resources) of Biomolecular Pathways Integrated Research Platform within Functional and Systems Biology Science Area. We will specifically examine the target organic acid compounds listed above as well as examine the entire metabolite profiles to look for differences among landforms and responses to the experimental P addition with the added support of the Multi-omics Analysis Portal (MAP) for statistical data analysis and visualization of Data Transformations Integrated Research Platform. Taken together, by investigating these soil metabolites that are relevant to the P cycle, the insights gained will extend from regional (Chihuahuan Desert) to global (drylands) scales, advancing our understanding of biogeochemical processes vital for sustaining Earth's biophysical (CZ) systems and functions.

Project Details

Project type
Exploratory Research
Start Date
End Date


Principal Investigator

Kalpana Kukreja
University of Texas at El Paso


Anthony Darrouzet-Nardi
University of Texas at El Paso