UK and U.S. scientists collaborate to design crops of the future
Three teams of UK and U.S. researchers will begin a program of novel research to revolutionize current farming methods by giving crops the ability to thrive without using costly, manufactured fertilizers.
The three highly innovative projects include: searching the planet for a lost bacterium with special, sought-after properties; using synthetic biology to create a new intracellular machine allowing plants to produce fertilizer themselves; and engineering beneficial relationships between plants and microbes.
$8.86M of Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and US National Science Foundation (NSF) funding has been awarded following an ‘Ideas Lab’ to generate new approaches that address growing global food demand, which will need 190.4M tonnes of nitrogen-fertilizer by 2015.
Plants need nitrogen to grow. There is a lot of it in the atmosphere but it is mostly unusable. Atmospheric nitrogen needs to be ‘fixed’ – combined with other elements into a biologically usable form. Most arable farming therefore relies on industrially produced fertilizer to ensure crop yields that meet demand.
Producing artificial fertilizers is costly and uses vast amounts of fossil fuel. Fertilizer use also generates environmental problems such as the runoff of fertilizer into rivers and emissions of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with a much greater global warming effect than carbon dioxide. This funding is aimed at generating innovative technological stepping stones that will reduce the need for fertilizer by enabling crops to fix their own nitrogen.
The three projects are:
$5.09M to engineer synthetic relationships between plants and bacteria
Some plants have developed close symbiotic relationships with bacteria. These bacteria are held in root nodules and convert the nitrogen gas found abundantly in the air into nitrogen fertilizer that plants need for growth. Researchers hope to transfer this nitrogen-fixing process into important crops to deliver nitrogen without using artificial fertilizers.
The researchers will genetically alter a nitrogen-fixing bacterium and a simple grass species, which is similar to more complex cereals such as maize, to ensure a lock-and-key interaction between plant and microbe, while maximizing nitrogen fixation by the bacteria and the amount of usable nitrogen delivered to the plant.
The bacteria will be genetically tuned to respond to plant signals and nutritional needs to control the production of nitrogen fertilizer for the plant.
Once the researchers have perfected the technique, they hope to develop effective interactions between maize and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
Professor Philip Poole from the University of Oxford said: “This research could pave the way for a ‘Green Revolution’ that will increase crop yields for resource-poor farmers and decrease the use and environmental impact of industrial fertilizers by wealthier farmers.”