Oxygen isotope in phosphate, a new approach to study the soil/plant system

Plant Nutrition

Phosphorus (P) is a major nutrient and an important constituent in cell membranes, DNA and RNA, and energy transporters. In most natural environments, inorganic orthophosphate is often limiting, P cycling and turnover are rapid, and organic compounds represents the main phosphate source to organisms.

We use a relatively new stable isotopic tracer, oxygen isotopes bound to phosphorus in phosphate to better understand the aspects of the P biogeochemical cycle which are still unclear, since many biological processes cannot be easily identified and quantified in natural settings. The O-P bond is highly stable at ambient temperature and in most environments on Earth, and only biological processes promote a significant change in the isotope signature of the phosphate.

In soil sciences, the use of δ18O-P is still in its infancy and relatively little has been published. We are working in optimizing existing preparation techniques for soil studies, combining sequential extraction of P to isotopic analysis. Our projects aim at characterizing and understand the processes influencing the isotopic signature in the soil and plants. We also work on the isotopic characterization of P sources in agricultural systems (plant residues, organic manure, mineral fertilizers) aiming at tracing them and assess their behavior in the environment.


Recent Publications

  • Estimates of mean residence times of phosphorus in commonly considered inorganic soil phosphorus pools
    Helfenstein, Julian; Pistocchi, Chiara; Oberson, Astrid; Tamburini, Federica; Goll, Daniel S.; et al.
    Biogeosciences,  DOI: 10.5194/bg-17-441-2020, JAN 30 2020
  • Biological processes dominate phosphorus dynamics under low phosphorus availability in organic horizons of temperate forest soils
    Pistocchi, C; Meszaros, E; Tamburini, F; Frossard, E; Bunemann, EK
    SOIL BIOLOGY & BIOCHEMISTRY, 126 64-75; 10.1016/j.soilbio.2018.08.013 NOV 2018
  • A method to analyse the isotopic composition of oxygen associated with organic phosphorus in soil and plant material
    Tamburini, F; Pistocchi, C; Helfenstein, J; Frossard, E
    EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF SOIL SCIENCE, 69 (5):816-826; 10.1111/ejss.12693 SEP 2018
  • Combining spectroscopic and isotopic techniques gives a dynamic view of phosphorus cycling in soil
    Helfenstein, J; Tamburini, F; von Sperber, C; Massey, MS; Pistocchi, C; Chadwick, OA; Vitousek, PM; Kretzschmar, R; Frossard, E
    NATURE COMMUNICATIONS, 9 10.1038/s41467-018-05731-2 AUG 13 2018
  • Organic phosphorus in the terrestrial environment: a perspective on the state of the art and future priorities (vol 427, pg 191, 2018)
    George, TS; Giles, CD; Menezes-Blackburn, D; Condron, LM; et al.
    PLANT AND SOIL, 427 (1-2):209-211; SI 10.1007/s11104-017-3488-2 JUN 2018
  • Organic phosphorus in the terrestrial environment: a perspective on the state of the art and future priorities
    George, TS; Giles, CD; Menezes-Blackburn, D; Condron, LM; Gama-Rodrigues, AC; Jaisi, D; Lang, F; Neal, AL; Stutter, MI; Almeida,
    DS; Bol, R; Cabugao, KG; Celi, L; Cotner, JB; Feng, G; Goll, DS; Hallama, M; Krueger, J; Plassard, C; Rosling, A; Darch, T; Fraser, T;
    Giesler, R; Richardson, AE; Tamburini, F; Shand, CA; Lumsdon, DG; Zhang, H; Blackwell, MSA; Wearing, C; Mezeli, MM; Almas, AR; Audette, Y; Bertrand, I; Beyhaut, E; Boitt, G; Bradshaw, N; Brearley, CA; Bruulsema, TW; Ciais, P; Cozzolino, V; Duran, PC; Mora, ML; de Menezes, AB; Dodd, RJ; Dunfield, K; Engl, C; Frazao, JJ; Garland, G; Jimenez, JLG; Graca, J; Granger, SJ; Harrison, AF; Heuck, C; Hou, EQ; Johnes, PJ; Kaiser, K; Kjaer, HA; Klumpp, E; Lamb, AL; Macintosh, KA; Mackay, EB; McGrath, J; McIntyre, C; McLaren, T; Meszaros, E; Missong, A; Mooshammer, M; Negron, CP; Nelson, LA; Pfahler, V; Poblete-Grant, P; Randall, M; Seguel, A; Seth, K; Smith, AC; Smits, MM; Sobarzo, JA; Spohn, M; Tawaraya, K; Tibbett, M; Voroney, P; Wallander, H; Wang, L; Wasaki, J; Haygarth, PM
    PLANT AND SOIL, 427 (1-2):191-208; SI 10.1007/s11104-017-3391-x JUN 2018
  • Short-term impacts of forest clear-cut on P accessibility in soil microaggregates: An oxygen isotope study 
    Siebers, Nina; Bauke, Sara L.; Tamburini, Federica; et al. 
    GEODERMA, 315: 59-64   10.1016/j.geoderma.2017.11.024 APR 1 2018
  • Subsoil phosphorus is affected by fertilization regime in long-term agricultural experimental trials 
    Bauke, S. L.; von Sperber, C.; Tamburini, F.; et al. 
    EUROPEAN JOURNAL OF SOIL SCIENCE, 69 (1): 103-112 JAN 2018 Article (Details)
  • A dual isotopic approach using radioactive phosphorus and the isotopic composition of oxygen associated to phosphorus to understand plant reaction to a change in P nutrition 
    Pfahler, Verena; Tamburini, Federica; Bernasconi, Stefano M.; et al. 
    PLANT METHODS, 13: 10.1186/s13007-017-0227-x SEP 25 2017 Article (Details)
  • Biopore effects on phosphorus biogeochemistry in subsoils 
    Bauke, S. L.; von Sperber, C.; Siebers, N.; et al. 
    SOIL BIOLOGY & BIOCHEMISTRY, 111: 157-165 AUG 2017 Article (Details)
Federica Tamburini

Dr. Federica Tamburini
ETH Zurich
Institute of Agricultural Sciences
8092 Zurich

Tel: +41 (0)44 354 92 81

Research topics

  • Phosphorus cycle in the environment
  • Isotopic tools (oxygen stable isotope in phosphate) in the soil/plant/water ecosystem
  • Soil formation
  • Sources and sinks of phosphorus in agricultural systems



  • Plant physiology
  • Enzymatic processes in soils