A joint Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and National Science Foundation (NSF) 'Ideas Lab' is in development in a bid to provide radically new approaches to producing crops with minimal input of nitrogen fertilizers.
Global food production will need to increase significantly if we are to be able to feed the growing human population. To address this challenge improved farming methods and technologies are needed to decrease inputs, like nitrogen fertilizer, while maintaining or increasing crop yields.
Nitrogen is critical to plant growth as an essential component of proteins and other cellular components. While there is an abundant supply of nitrogen in the earth's atmosphere, most plants cannot use it unless it is 'fixed' (combined) to form ammonium or nitrate ions. Many important crops also struggle to make use of the available nitrogen efficiently.
The result is that many agricultural crops rely on the addition of nitrogen-based fertilizers. This is costly and is limited in developing countries, where the cost and lack of infrastructure are barriers. In addition, the energy input required to make nitrogen-based fertilisers is extremely large and makes a significant contribution to atmospheric greenhouse gas. Nitrogen applied to agricultural land can also be lost as run-off into water courses.
The hope is that the Ideas Lab will develop research proposals that could result in crops capable of fixing nitrogen and/or with improved nitrogen use efficiency. This could be achieved by giving crops the ability to fix their own nitrogen or increasing the nitrogen available to roots by manipulating the rhizosphere (the zone of soil and associated microorganisms around plants' roots). Improving a crop's use of nitrogen is another route to decreasing the amount of fertiliser required.
Prof Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive said: "This is about fresh ideas and fresh approaches. We want a step-change in our thinking and our knowledge, rather than incremental advances. The outputs of this research should aim to revolutionise farming for the future."
While the Ideas Lab will involve multidisciplinary teams of researchers from a traditional biology background, other disciplines which may help to shed light on the topic; like physics, engineering, mathematical modelling, computer science or chemistry.
Dr John Wingfield, NSF's Assistant Director for the Directorate of Biological Sciences said: "The aspiration is that mixing researchers from diverse backgrounds will engender fresh thinking and approaches that can be brought to bear on this long-standing problem. By bringing together the best researchers from the US and the UK, the intention is to form strong transatlantic alliances, where the resulting synergies from the expertise of each partner, allows for significant added value."
The Ideas Lab will take advantage of recent advances in our understanding of aspects of plants' nitrogen-fixing processes, as well as the signals used by plants and microbes to communicate in the rhizosphere. The research could involve synthetic biology to find new ways of fixing atmospheric nitrogen, or take inspirations from marine and soil nitrogen fixation mechanisms to provide new ways to improve plants. Optimising nitrogen use efficiency within crops is an equally important area and could take advantage of research into plant nitrogen metabolism and resource partitioning in the plant.