Eco-Friendly Plant Growth from Thin Air

Professor Edward Cocking. Credit: University of Nottingham

A researcher from the University of Nottingham has developed an eco-friendly way for plants to derive nitrogen from air, which could alleviate agriculture's reliance on synthetic crop fertilisers.

Autor*in Anna Rees, 07.30.13

A researcher from the University of Nottingham has developed an eco-friendly way for plants to derive nitrogen from air, which could alleviate agriculture’s reliance on synthetic crop fertilisers.

The modern agricultural industry is heavily dependent upon synthetic crop fertilisers to support its work, using them as a source of nitrogen which plants then turn into ammonia. Few plant types (mainly legumes) are able to absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere thanks to nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The majority of crops rely on the nitrogen found in soil which suffices for, say, a garden with the odd plant or two. For acres of farmland with crops a-plenty, the soil needs to be fortified and replenished quickly and this is primarily done through synthetic crop fertilisers.

Professor Edward Cocking, Director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, has been developing a means to circumvent the need to use synthetic crop fertilisers and last week presented the product of more than a decade’s worth of research, unveiling a breakthrough method of putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots. Certain varieties of Brazilian sugarcane also possess nitrogen-fixing bacteria, despite not belonging to the legume family. Professor Cocking was able to take a specific strain of this sugarcane bacteria and use it to colonise all major crop plants intracellularly. According to Gizmag, the resulting technology, dubbed ‘N-Fix’, “involves covering seeds in a non-toxic coating that contains the bacterium. As a seed sprouts and the plant grows, the bacterium enters through its roots”.

The coating is environmentally friendly and means that every cell in the resulting plant could potentially absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere, which could mean big things for both agriculture and our planet. In 2010, a team of researchers from the University of Illinois investigated the effect that synthetic nitrogen fertilisers have on soil, arguing that synthetic fertilisers could be reducing the amount of organic nitrogen found in soil. As an extension of this effect, soil’s ability to store nitrogen is also compromised, meaning that excess nitrogen is washed away with drainage water, entering waterways as nitrates and into the atmosphere as the greenhouse gas, nitrous oxide.

In line with population growth and the need to churn out crops at increasingly faster rates, agriculture’s dependence upon synthetic nitrogen fertilisers is only increasing. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that global demand for these types of fertilisers has been on the rise by about 1.7 percent per year since 2011 and will continue this climb until 2015. Innovations such as N-Fix could help meet the demand for supplying nitrogen to plants in a way that is environmentally sustainable, energy efficient in terms of its production and maintains soil health.

For more information on N-Fix and nitrogen fixing, head over to the University of Nottingham’s website.

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