Plant root mucilages contain powerful surfactants that will alter the interaction of soil solids with water and ions, and the rates of microbial processes.
The lipid composition of maize, lupin and wheat root mucilages was analysed by thin layer chromatography and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. A commercially available phosphatidylcholine (lecithin), chemically similar to the phospholipid surfactants identified in the mucilages, was then used to evaluate its effects on selected soil properties.
The lipids found in the mucilages were principally phosphatidylcholines, composed mainly of saturated fatty acids, in contrast to the lipids extracted from root tissues. In soil at low tension, lecithin reduced the water content at any particular tension by as much as 10 and 50% in soil and acid-washed sand, respectively. Lecithin decreased the amount of phosphate adsorption in soil and increased the phosphate concentration in solution by 10%. The surfactant also reduced net rates of ammonium consumption and nitrate production in soil.
These experiments provide the first evidence we are aware of that plant-released surfactants will significantly modify the biophysical environment of the rhizosphere.