Selective fertilization with phosphite allows unhindered growth of cotton plants expressing the ptxD gene while suppressing weeds.
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Weeds, which have been the bane of agriculture since the beginning of civilization, are managed manually, mechanically, and, more recently, by chemicals. However, chemical control options are rapidly shrinking due to the recent rise in the number of herbicide-resistant weeds in crop fields, with few alternatives on the horizon. Therefore, there is an urgent need for alternative weed suppression systems to sustain crop productivity while reducing our dependence on herbicides and tillage. Such a development will also allay some of the negative perceptions associated with the use of herbicide-resistance genes and heavy dependence on herbicides. Transgenic plants expressing the bacterial phosphite dehydrogenase (ptxD) gene gain an ability to convert phosphite (Phi) into orthophosphate [Pi, the metabolizable form of phosphorus (P)]. Such plants allow for a selective fertilization scheme, based on Phi as the sole source of P for the crop, while offering an effective alternative for suppressing weed growth. Here, we show that, when P is supplied in the form of Phi, ptxD-expressing cotton (Gossypium hirsutum L.) plants outcompete, in both artificial substrates and natural soils from agricultural fields, three different monocot and dicot weed species intentionally introduced in the experiments, as well as weeds naturally present in the tested soils. Importantly, the ptxD/Phi system proved highly efficacious in inhibiting the growth of glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth. With over 250 weed species resistant to currently available herbicides, ptxD-transgenic plants fertilized with Phi could provide an effective alternative to suppressing the growth of these weeds while providing adequate nutrition to the crop.