Sophie Groenhof

A novel opportunity to combat the global Phosphorus crisis: investigating structure function relationships of an atypical phosphatase in soil bacteria

About me


I obtained my BSc (Hons) in Biology from the University of Bristol where I developed an interest in the use of biotechnology to help overcome issues facing the world. After graduating, I undertook an MSc by research, also at the University of Bristol, in molecular plant pathology working on cassava brown streak virus, the causal agent of devastating crop losses across East Africa. Following this, I then worked as a research technician as part of the Exeter Microbial Biofuels Group which gave me great experience at working within the biotechnology sector and with an industrial partner. My current PhD project excites me as I will be working on a recently identified phosphatase in soil bacteria with unique activity that has the potential to reduce chemical fertiliser use and make agricultural practices more sustainable. 


My project


Since the Green Revolution of the mid-20th century, phosphate rock has been mined at increasing rates to produce chemical fertilisers to maintain sufficient crop yields to feed the growing population. Reliance on chemical fertilisers is only set to increase as the global population continues to rise. However, depletion of the non-renewable phosphate rock reserves is now a major threat to global food security, with reserves due to be exhausted within 50 years. There is now increased interest in exploiting the phosphate solubilising properties of microorganisms to break down phosphate mineral complexes that are abundant in soil, yet in their current state are unavailable for plants to take up and use. Discovery of a phosphatase with unique activity within soil bacteria belonging to the Bacteroidetes phylum could be a novel opportunity to help overcome the phosphorus crisis. The phosphatase is highly active against a variety of phosphate compounds and this activity is constitutive irrespective of inorganic phosphate levels within the surrounding soil. This contrasts starkly with characterised phosphatases found in other soil bacteria that only exhibit activity when soil inorganic phosphate levels are low. Work carried out in this project will characterise a key new enzyme in global phosphorus cycling, which presents an exciting solution for enhancing sustainable agriculture.


Twitter: @sophiegroenhof