Nitrogen-Fixing Corn Seed Treatment in the Pipeline

( Darrell Smith )

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Fertilizer is a multi-billion dollar industry. What if you could save some of the money you spend on nitrogen for corn and re-invest it in different crop production inputs? Would it be a game changer? Could it simply help your budget stay on track?

Researchers are working on a solution for corn to help the grass start fixing its own nitrogen, much like soybean.

“There has always been a natural symbiotic relationship between leguminous plants (peas and beans) and nitrogen-fixing microbes,” says Marcus Meadows, CEO of BioConsortia. “We’re looking at nitrogen fixation for corn, wheat and other non-leguminous crops. We’ve identified a range of microbes that naturally fix nitrogen.”

Using gene editing platforms, they’re perfecting these microbes for use in corn as a seed treatment. When it’s all said and done, they’ll create a natural microbe through gene editing that provides a continuous, or over, expression of nitrogen fixation.

“We’re not going to totally eliminate the need to apply nitrogen,” Meadows says. “Our target is to reduce nitrogen by 30%, or if a grower chooses to keep their nitrogen application at current levels, they’ll see better utilization of the nitrogen and higher yielding crops.”

The seed treatment and microbials would also help the plant fixate nitrogen throughout the year. This would supply it with the essential nutrient at critical times like grain fill, when the field might normally be running out of nitrogen with certain application practices. In addition, the company claims because it’s fixating nitrogen, losses from leaching and runoff should be less because there would be less fertilizer applied to fields so there’s overall reduced potential for negative environmental impact.

“Given this isn’t a pesticide we will be doing the field trials in 2021 and depending on the outcome of those trials we could launch this product in 2022 or 2023,” he says.

More than one option

BioConsorita isn’t the only company investing in nitrogen fixation for non-legume plants. In the past few years, Pivot Bio with university research is finding new ways to help corn and grasses fixate nitrogen.

“Through nearly a decade of research, we understand how microbes work in nature before they adapted to heavy fertilizer use,” says Alvin Tasmir, co-founder and chief science officer at Pivot Bio. “We take that knowledge and enable these naturally-occurring microbes to work as nature intended again.”

Pivot Bio’s PROVEN product are microbes applied in-furrow at planting. The microbes create a symbiotic relationship with the corn plant to product and deliver nitrogen to the crop throughout the growing season. The company has test data from 2018, 2019 and continues demonstrating the product this year.

Researchers at University of Wisconsin-Madison, University of California-Davis and Mars Inc. found corn native to Oaxaca, Mexico, grows up to 10 aerial roots (compared with two in a typical plant) that secrete gel to protect nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

Corn with this capability can acquire 30% to 80% of the nitrogen it needs through fixation, according to the study. Humidity and rain control just how much or little nitrogen the plant gains.

“The corn can be simply crossed to modern hybrids,” says Jean-Michel Ané, professor of bacteriology and agronomy at University of Wisconsin-Madison and coauthor of the study. “We’re using molecular markers to help speed up breeding.”

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