Marcus Wallenberg Prize 2018

Torgny Näsholm honoured for research on organic nitrogen uptake by trees

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The King of Sweden might have been forgiven for looking a little pensive yesterday.  He had to open a new, precariously hung, Parliament this afternoon. But he looked pretty cheerful last night as he handed the 2018 Marcus Wallenberg Prize to a tree ecophysiologist. 

Prof. Torgny Näsholm received the award for his discovery that plants appear to be able to take up amino acids directly from the soil. This finding challenges the idea that organic molecules need to be broken down to ammonium or nitrates before plants can absorb them. It potentially opens the way for effective fertilisers that do not freely leach nitrates into rivers.

In a series of papers Torgny Näsholm’s research group have shown that large percentages of nitrogen in the soils of boreal forests are found amino acid form, and that these are a direct nitrogen source for forest plants. They found that arginine is particularly good as a nitrogen source. This has led to some re-thinking of the nitrogen cycle.

The commercial implications of this have not gone unnoticed, especially in Sweden where forestry plantations tend to be nitrogen limited. A company called Arevo is now selling an arginine-based fertiliser, which is being used by some forest nurseries. It is helping them to reduce their nitrogen leachates and provide slow-release nutrition for their spruce and pine seedlings.

As usual, the Marcus Wallenberg Prize event was attended by a fascinating mix of international scientists, Swedish high society, financiers and industrialists. It ended with a short concert by the Orphei Drängar choir, and was followed today by a research symposium.

Richard Buggs

Professor, Queen Mary University of London