Science

N-Fix tech could drastically reduce agricultural fertilizer use

N-Fix tech could drastically r...
Prof. Edward Cocking, developer of the N-Fix system
Prof. Edward Cocking, developer of the N-Fix system
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Prof. Edward Cocking, developer of the N-Fix system
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Prof. Edward Cocking, developer of the N-Fix system

Synthetic crop fertilizers are a huge source of pollution. This is particularly true when they’re washed from fields (or leach out of them) and enter our waterways. Unfortunately, most commercial crops need the fertilizer, because it provides the nitrogen that they require to survive. Now, however, a scientist at the University of Nottingham has developed what he claims is an environmentally-friendly process, that allows virtually any type of plant to obtain naturally-occurring nitrogen directly from the atmosphere.

There are only a few types of plants (mainly legumes like soybeans and peas) that are able to obtain – or “fix” – nitrogen from the air. They are able to do so with the help of symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Those bacteria help the plant get nitrogen, and in turn feed on the naturally occurring plant sugars. Most other plants have to get their nitrogen from the soil, and when you have a lot of plants growing close together, you need to augment that soil’s nitrogen content with fertilizer.

Nitrogen-fixing bacteria do occur in some varieties of Brazilian sugarcane (a non-legume plant), which is the reason that those varieties are known for producing high yields with the addition of only small amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. Nottingham’s Prof. Edward Cocking discovered that one strain of that bacteria could colonize all major crop plants, at a cellular level.

The process that Cocking developed, based on his discovery, is known as N-Fix. It involves covering seeds in a non-toxic coating that contains the bacterium. As a seed sprouts and the plant grows, the bacterium enters through its roots, and ultimately ends up in every cell of the plant. This means that every one of those cells is capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere – just like sugarcane does.

N-Fix has been undergoing lab and field tests for the past 10 years, and has now been licensed to Azotic Technologies for further development and commercial production. According to the company, the bacteria should replace about 60 percent of plant nitrogen needs. It is hoped that the technology will be available for worldwide use within two to three years.

“Helping plants to naturally obtain the nitrogen they need is a key aspect of World Food Security,” says Cocking. “The world needs to unhook itself from its ever increasing reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers produced from fossil fuels with its high economic costs, its pollution of the environment and its high energy costs.”

Source: University of Nottingham

21 comments
Kim Holder
Why have i got a bad feeling about this... If this was such a great natural advantage, wouldn't it have spread throughout the plant kingdom a long time ago?
Mindbreaker
This is really big and a great approach too. It is much better than just putting the genes in the plant to fix nitrogen. If they did that instead and they proliferated it could reduce the volume of the atmosphere leading to increases in radiation and very cold nights. Oxygen would not pose a problem...with the increased plant life there would probably be a small increase in oxygen. Also, as theoretical maximum tree height is a function of atmospheric pressure it would mean the tops of the very tall trees would die. Trees would not be able to grow as high under less atmospheric pressure. They would get xylem embolisms lower than they do now (max height now is about 130m), water can only be pulled so high. Some can cheat a little bit collecting moisture from the air or by only getting water to the top on high pressure days but that only gets a few more scraggly meters. It also might mean that aquatic mammals and birds may be able to dive deeper because of reduced nitrogen bubbles. Unknown, but probably Minimal ecosystem effects from that. With less air pressure it might increase evaporation making the air more humid on average and combined with the cooling at night lead to frequent night rain. But as long as we have to soak the seed and the plant's subsequent generations don't retain the bacteria, things should be great...we don't really grow that much vegetation. Does lead one to wonder why more plants are not doing this already. I hope there is not a good reason. I also wonder if it will accelerate spoilage as bacteria are part of that equation. This does sound fantastic though.
Slowburn
I am not convinced that spreading a South American bacteria around the world is a better idea than over fertilization.
Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
Congratulations. I hope for all the best that this is a big step towards sustainability. Now to find a solution for phosphate fertilizers...
EddieG
The oil company would never allow this. Dream on.
Chizzy
MINDBREAKER: the idea that plant fixing nitrogen would somehow make our atmosphere thinner is ludicrous. Our atmosphere is approximately 5.5 quadrillion tons, and 78% nitrogen. Any effect on atmosphere density due to this symbiotic bacteria infecting every single plant on earth would still be negligible, perhaps not even measurable. Do some math before you start fear mongering. The question I have is what is the cost to the plant in having to feed this symbiot in exchange for the nitrogen. Sugarcane has lots of extra energy in the form of the sugar the plant it produces. Corn, wheat, vegetables may grow smaller or produce less if the energy requirements of symbiosis are too high. SLOWBURN: While this process avoids needing to engineer the plants, it also opens possibility for cross contamination. Though it does seem a negligible worry, in my opinion, as the seed must be inoculated for the plant to achieve the symbiosis. Any reduction in field fertilization is an environmental bonus, and a hopeful way to combat ocean dead zones caused by fertilizer runoff.
Slowburn
re; Chizzy I have seen the results of too many well intentioned specie introductions to think that this time it will go as planned. Wave harvesting machines that splash water around aerate the water which will fix the nutrient caused ocean dead zones. For steams and rivers use under shot waterwheels and you can generate electricity at the same time as you aerate.
Chizzy
Slowburn: I too am wary of introduced non native species, and would actually prefered the plant to be gene spliced instead of massive release of a 'beneficial' bacteria. I have no problem with genetic engineering, my problem is that plants are being engineered to be able to survive increase pesticide use. To me that seems exactly the wrong solution to engineer for. I'd much rather see a plant engineered so that it needed no added pesticides, fungicides or fertilizers. Corn, wheat, soy, rice, potato, tomato, ect would all benefit from being engineered to hardiness levels and there would be no worry of the engineered genes jumping into other species like a bacterium could.
JCK
This is great, but certainly not new! Making the use, though, of just the one nitrogen fixing microbe to improve yield and nutrient levels, solves only part of the soil puzzle. Biosoil LLC in Hattiesburg Mississippi, in conjunction with MSU have successfully developed a polymicrobial product labelled SumaGrow, which has this particular microbe along with many others that work in symbiosis to greatly improve plant health. this product is now available in over 40 countries from Zambia to Costa Rica. Check it out here: www.farmorganix.com
squigbobble
Slowburn: I can't tell if you're trolling or not but whatevs. The undershot vs. overshot waterwheel debate was settled by John Smeaton in 1759; overshot wheels are twice as efficient as undershot ones. Get with the times. Also, wave harvesting machines (of which very have been installed) splashing around and causing ocean dead zones? If that were true the splashing around that naturally occurring ocean waves create would have dead zones almost everywhere, not just where fertiliser runoff has created algal or cyanobacterial blooms that deoxygenate the water and kill everything...