37 years of conducting research analyses on plants and soils

37 años de trabajo en análisis de investigación en plantas y suelos

For 37 years, the Plant Physiology and Nutrition Laboratory at CIAT has been in charge of chemical analyses for different projects related to forages, beans, and the soils in which they grow.

The group working in the laboratory is composed of coordinator Gonzalo Borrero and Diana Patricia Higuita, Rosa Elvira Brand, and Aracely Vidal, who assist with chemical and nutritional analyses of both plant tissues and soil samples.

These analyses are requested by researchers conducting tests to determine the effectiveness or influence of the treatments under study in their trials, according to the areas of research.

In addition, Physiology and Nutrition team members interact with the members of the lab that receives the samples to be analyzed.

Among these team members are José Polanía, a research associate in the Bean Program who works on drought and heat resistance to select varieties that adapt well to these conditions, and Mariela Rivera, a research associate who focuses on soil compaction, measuring root resistance, and root mechanisms for nutrient absorption and their development.

Another member is Jaumer Ricaurte, a research associate who conducts trials to study acid soil problems in beans and forages (low pH and high iron and aluminum concentrations, with low phosphorus availability to be absorbed by plant roots; pH is a chemical property that influences nutrient availability, chemical and biological processes, and microbial activity).

In the particular case of flooding, the research is conducted by postdoctoral researcher Juan Andrés Cardoso and researcher Juan de la Cruz Jiménez. They measure the physiological processes generated by an excess of water.

Likewise, Norma Barbosa, research assistant in the Bean Program, is in charge of nitrogen fixation, evaluating the nodule formation mechanism in the roots, which helps in the uptake of atmospheric nitrogen so that the plant can improve its nutritional status.

Jacobo Arango, head of the Forages Laboratory, and Jonathan Núñez, research assistant in this program, are carrying out important work observing so-called biological nitrogen inhibition (BNI), a mechanism that takes place in the roots of a tropical grass used as fodder, which significantly reduces the conversion of nitrogen into nitrous oxide applied to the soil as fertilizer. This has enormous potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers are in charge of sending samples, which can be either plant tissues (roots, stems, seeds, leaves, or whole plants) or soil samples, from the sites where trials are conducted.

No place for mistakes

To achieve good results, the lab maintains all processes under control, and there is no place for mistakes. Tissue samples are processed by grinding and sieving (1 or 2 millimeters), and then placing them in test tubes. Soils are dried at room temperature,  homogenized and sieved (1 or 2 millimeters, depending on the analysis), and then packed in previously numbered cardboard boxes.


When the samples are ready, they enter the lab with a record sheet containing information regarding the number of samples, who collected them, when, and where they came from. The samples are identified with an internal code number and taken for the requested analysis.

To ensure the reliability of results, all samples are analyzed according to four standards to compare results.

After a sample is analyzed, calculations are carried out and the results are sent to the corresponding researcher.

Similarly, for security reasons, all data are recorded as part of the lab’s commitment to quality and good laboratory practices (GLP).

Emphasis is given to the use of safety devices, staff training regarding reagent handling and risks, control of daily use and checking of equipment, and the implementation of the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of classification and labeling of chemicals to standardize criteria within the organization, a task carried out with support from the Area for Health, Safety, and the Environment.

A continuously developing team

Since 2012, the members of Physiology and Nutrition at CIAT rely on the development of a program that includes talks, self-evaluation to identify critical points, and the setup of action plans for continuous improvement. Topics such as good field and laboratory practices, internal communications, and teamwork are reviewed annually to improve interaction among team members.


“Rather than an obligation, it is necessary for members to receive training, updates, and feedback regarding their duties, so that all of them know exactly what they must do, given the advance of technology and new methodologies in their fields.”


Gonzalo Borrero

Coordinator of the Plant Physiology and Nutrition Laboratory at CIAT.

Although as in many multidisciplinary work teams some coordination difficulties occur, for 2016 the laboratory aims at providing broad scientific support to each and every project working with plant and soil analyses.

It is worth highlighting the leadership of Dr. Michael Peters in the Forages Program and Dr. Idupulapati Rao during these years of advances and improvements, as well as the joint work of a team of researchers who day by day provide their expertise and knowledge to carry out CIAT’s mission.