Key message: GmPAP4, a novel plant PAP gene in soybean, has phytase activity. Over-expressing GmPAP4 can enhance Arabidopsis growth when phytate is the sole P source in culture. Phosphorus (P) is an important macronutrient for plant growth and development. However, most of the total P in soils is fixed into organic phosphate (Po). Purple acid phosphatase (PAP) can hydrolyze Po in the soil to liberate inorganic phosphate and enhance plant P utilization. We isolated a novel PAP gene, GmPAP4, from soybean (Glycine max). It had an open reading frame of 1,329 bp, encoding 442 amino acid residues. Sequence alignment and phylogenetics analysis indicated that GmPAP4 was similar to other plant PAPs with large molecular masses. Quantitative real-time PCR analysis showed that the induced expression of GmPAP4 was greater in P-efficient genotype Zhonghuang15 (ZH15) than in P-inefficient genotype Niumaohuang (NMH) during the periods of flowering (28-35 days post phytate stress; DPP) and pod formation (49-63 DPP). Moreover, peak expression, at 63 DPP, was about 3-fold higher in 'ZH15' than in 'NMH'. Sub-cellular localization showed that GmPAP4 might be on plasma membrane or in cytoplasm. Over-expressing GmPAP4 in Arabidopsis resulted in significant rises in P acquisition and utilization compared with the wild-type (WT). Under phytate condition, transgenic Arabidopsis plants showed increases of approximately 132.7 % in dry weight and 162.6 % in shoot P content compared with the WT. Furthermore, when phytate was added as the sole P source in cultures, the activity of acid phosphatase was significantly higher in transgenic plants. Therefore, GmPAP4 is a novel PAP gene that functions in plant's utilization of organic phosphate especially under phytate condition. © 2014 Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg.