A potentially “world-changing” technology has been developed by researchers at the University of Nottingham — a means of enabling any type of crop to take nitrogen from the air. In other words, an effective means of phasing out expensive and environmentally damaging nitrogen fertilizers.
As it stands now, most crops are dependent upon nitrogen fertilizers, as they are unable to “fix” their own nitrogen from the air, as some plants/crops do (legumes mostly). Legumes possess the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere thanks to the nitrogen fixing bacteria that live within them. So if plants that are able to fix their own nitrogen possess that ability as a result of bacteria, what’s stopping the development of techniques/bacteria to provide that ability to other crops? That’s the question that the researchers have now provided an answer to: Not much.
The University of Nottingham writes:
Nitrogen fixation, the process by which nitrogen is converted to ammonia, is vital for plants to survive and grow. However, only a very small number of plants, most notably legumes (such as peas, beans and lentils) have the ability to fix their own nitrogen from the air. The vast majority of plants have to obtain nitrogen from the soil, and for most crops currently being grown across the world, this also means a reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
Professor Edward Cocking, Director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, has developed a unique method of putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots. His major breakthrough came when he found a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar-cane which he discovered could intracellularly colonize all major crop plants. This ground-breaking development potentially provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. The implications for agriculture are enormous as this new technology can provide much of the plant’s nitrogen needs.
A leading world expert in nitrogen and plant science, Professor Cocking has long recognized that there is a critical need to reduce nitrogen pollution caused by nitrogen-based fertilizers. Nitrate pollution is a major problem, as is also the pollution of the atmosphere by ammonia and oxides of nitrogen. In addition, nitrate pollution is a health hazard and also causes oxygen-depleted “dead zones” in our waterways and oceans. A recent study estimates that that the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen pollution across Europe is £60 billion — £280 billion a year.
With regard to the new technology — which has been dubbed ‘N-Fix’ — Professor Cocking had this to say: “Helping plants to naturally obtain the nitrogen they need is a key aspect of World Food Security. 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.”
To explain further, N-Fix doesn’t involve any genetic modification or bio-engineering, it’s simply a naturally occurring nitrogen-fixing bacteria that, when applied to the cells of plants (intra-cellular), via the seeds, provides every one of the plant’s cells with the ability to fix nitrogen. All that needs to be done is to coat the seeds with the bacteria.
According to the researchers, the technology works with any type of crop. And apparently there is quite a lot of field experience to back that assertion up. Over the past 10 years, “the University of Nottingham has conducted a series of extensive research programs which have established proof of principal of the technology in the laboratory, growth rooms and glasshouses.”
“The proof of concept has already been demonstrated. The uptake and fixation of nitrogen in a range of crop species has been proven to work in the laboratory and Azotic Technologies Ltd is now working on field trials in order to produce robust efficacy data. This will be followed by seeking regulatory approval for N-Fix initially in the UK, Europe, USA, Canada and Brazil, with more countries to follow.”
Current estimates are that the N-Fix technology will be made commercially available sometime within the next few years.