26th July 2013
World-changing technology enables crops to take nitrogen from the air
After 12 years of research, scientists have demonstrated a GM-free process that could dramatically reduce nitrogen pollution. It allows virtually all of the world's crop species to obtain up to 60% of their nitrogen requirements from air, as opposed to expensive and environmentally-damaging fertilisers.
Nitrogen fixation – the process by which nitrogen is converted to ammonia – is vital for plants to survive and grow. However, only a very small number of plants have the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere with the help of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. The vast majority of plants have to obtain nitrogen from the soil, and for most crops being grown around the world, this also means a reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.
Professor Edward Cocking, at the University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, has developed a unique method of putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots. His major breakthrough came when he discovered a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar-cane which he found could intracellularly colonise all major crop plants. This ground-breaking development potentially provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. The implications for agriculture are enormous as this new technology can provide much of the plant’s nitrogen needs.
Nitrogen pollution is a major global health hazard
A leading world expert in nitrogen and plant science, Professor Cocking has long recognised the critical need to reduce nitrogen pollution caused by nitrogen-based fertilisers. Nitrate pollution is a major problem, as is the pollution of the atmosphere by ammonia and oxides of nitrogen.
As pictured below, the nitrogen cycle is among the nine planetary boundaries proposed by scientists. Nitrate pollution is a health hazard and causes oxygen-depleted 'dead zones' in our waterways and oceans. A recent study estimated that the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen pollution across Europe may be as high as £280 billion ($431 billion).
Speaking about the technology, which is known as 'N-Fix', Professor Cocking said: "Helping plants to naturally obtain the nitrogen they need is a key aspect of World Food Security. The world needs to unhook itself from its ever-increasing reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers produced from fossil fuels with its high economic costs, its pollution of the environment and its high energy costs."
A natural and environmentally-friendly solution
N-Fix is neither genetic modification nor bio-engineering. It is a naturally occurring nitrogen-fixing bacteria which takes up and uses nitrogen from the air. Applied to the cells of plants (intra-cellular) via the seed, it provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix nitrogen. Plant seeds are coated with these bacteria in order to create a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship and naturally produce nitrogen.
Dr Susan Huxtable, Director of Intellectual Property Commercialisation at the University of Nottingham, believes there are potentially major implications for the agricultural industry: “There is a substantial global market for the N-Fix technology, as it can be applied to all crops. It has the power to transform agriculture, while at the same time offering a significant cost benefit to the grower through the savings that they will make in the reduced costs of fertilisers. It is a great example of how University research can have a world-changing impact.”
The potential to help feed the developing world
Peter Blezard, CEO of Azotic Technologies, added: “Agriculture has to change and N-Fix can make a real and positive contribution to that change. It has enormous potential to help feed more people in many of the poorer parts of the world, while at the same time, dramatically reducing the amount of synthetic nitrogen produced in the world.”