Although the modern use of fertilizers has increased food production around the world, fertilizer pollution in water ways is a growing concern. Researchers may have discovered a way to help plants better absorb nitrogen, which may help reduce the need for increasing amounts of fertilizer and its subsequent runoff into waterways.

Scientists experimented with Arabidopsis plants, which are frequently used in place of corn in research. They found that these plants have a gene that is triggered when the plant is starving for nitrogen. This gene allows plants to absorb trace amounts of nitrate for survival.

“Although nitrogen is one of the most important nutrients for plant growth and productivity, how plans sense and respond to levels of nitrogen in soils is now well understood,” Takatoshi Kiba, researcher at the RIKEN Plant Science Center told Phys.org. “This is why we started the study focusing on the NRT2.4 gene.”

It is this gene that scientists think they can turn on in corn and possibly other plants. This would allow plant breeders to create plants that absorbed nitrogen fertilizers better than conventional or current hybrids and varieties. The potential is that less fertilizers could be used, which could help prevent nitrogen runoff into waterways. The gene, NRT2.4, could be key to developing future hybrids and varieties.

For details of the research, read more here.