July 26, 2013
Better Crops: Building In Automatic Nitrogen Fixation
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
Plant scientists from the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom have announced a revolutionary new system that allows plants to take nitrogen from the atmosphere and potentially eliminate the need for chemical fertilizers that can pollute the ecosystem where they are used.
Plants must fix nitrogen and convert it to ammonia in order to survive and grow - however, only a few plants, such as peas and lentils, have the ability to do so with the help of a symbiotic bacteria. Most plants must acquire nitrogen from soil through either a natural or artificial source.
To bring atmospheric nitrogen fixing capabilities to any plant, Edward Cocking, director of Nottingham's Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, has created a way to put symbiotic bacteria into the cells of plant roots by identifying a particular strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar-cane. The professor found that this unique strain is capable of colonizing the cells of all major crop plants. The development means that cell in a plant could potentially have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen by itself.
Cocking said his discovery could be used to increase food security around the world without the use of chemicals or genetic engineering.
"Helping plants to naturally obtain the nitrogen they need is a key aspect of World Food Security," the professor noted. "The world needs to unhook itself from its ever increasing reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers produced from fossil fuels with its high economic costs, its pollution of the environment and its high energy costs."
The technique, dubbed N-Fix, involves coating seeds with the specific nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Once the bacteria enter the growing plant, they convey the capacity to fix nitrogen to every cell they enter. According to a statement from the university, the technology is environmentally friendly, can be used on all crops and has been tested over the last 10 years "in the laboratory, growth rooms and glasshouses."
The technology also has the potential to reduce nitrate pollution, which is a health hazard and can cause oxygen-depleted 'dead zones' in affected waterways.
The University of Nottingham said they have entered into a partnership with Azotic Technologies Ltd to develop and commercialize N-Fix on a global scale.
"There is a substantial global market for the N-Fix technology, as it can be applied globally to all crops," said Susan Huxtable, director of Intellectual Property Commercialization at The University of Nottingham. "N-Fix has the power to transform agriculture, while at the same time offering a significant cost benefit to the grower through the savings that they will make in the reduced costs of fertilizers. It is a great example of how University research can have a world-changing impact."
"Agriculture has to change and N-Fix can make a real and positive contribution to that change," said Peter Blezard, CEO of Azotic. "It has enormous potential to help feed more people in many of the poorer parts of the world, while at the same time, dramatically reducing the amount of synthetic nitrogen produced in the world."