Phosphate, critical for plant nutrition, exists at exceptionally low levels in the soils of many tropical nations. Phosphate fertilizers are expensive, the bane of many developing world farmers. Another solution is now under development by researchers in Switzerland and Colombia using soil microbes that help a plant procure this critical nutrient.

Microbes in the soil called arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi are able to form spores and filaments within and around a plant’s roots to help them to obtain phosphate. This process—and its utility to farmers—is detailed in “Superdirt,” an article in the September special issue of Scientific American on food. Watch the process here whereby mycorrhizal fungi perform their magic in this animation from the laboratory of Ian R. Sanders at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland.