A new federal grant will establish Montana State University and the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla., as global hubs for integrating research activities on the supply and utilization of nitrogen by plants.

The new five-year grant totaling $500,000 was awarded by the National Science Foundation to John Peters, an MSU professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, and Michael Udvardi of the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, a nonprofit research institute.

The grant will fund development of an NSF Research Coordination Network called the Plant Nitrogen Network (PlaNNet). The network will include researchers and other stakeholders around the world who are designing and implementing research and development strategies to address the challenges of nitrogen in agriculture.

PlaNNet will include a database and website designed to build collaborations among nitrogen-related research projects and researchers; workshops at conferences throughout the world; and a series of “Workshops Without Walls” -- interactive global videoconferences that will unite hundreds of experts around the topic.

“We really seem to be seeing a renewed interest in nitrogen in the context of agricultural biotechnology” Peters said.

“PlaNNet will help to devise and implement strategies to solve problems related to too much or too little nitrogen in agricultural systems around the world,” Udvardi said. “Ultimately, it’s about uniting researchers who are working toward sustainable, productive agriculture.”

Nitrogen is a key driver of plant productivity, and nitrogen-intensive fertilizers are a critical component of modern large-scale agriculture. But as the world population nears 9 billion by 2050, Peters and Udvardi said they believe a coordinated effort is necessary to improve the efficiency of nitrogen use via agricultural management practices, plant breeding for increased nitrogen efficiency, as well as the exploitation of biological nitrogen fixation in both natural and synthetic systems.

“Biological nitrogen fixation is a key paradigm for sustainable, biological solutions that could, in theory, impact many major crop species,” Peters said.

Peters and Udvardi are currently collaborators on an NSF-supported research project and part of an international team that is attempting to extend nitrogen-fixing symbiosis between plants and microorganisms to a wide range of crop plants to decrease the need for industrial nitrogen fertilizer.