mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
Scientists Unlock Self-Fertilizing Crops

British scientists have figured out a way to “unlock” vast amounts of nitrogen in the air to reduce our reliance on conventional fertilizer. Nitrogen is the most abundant element in the air and is a key catalyst for plant growth, but most plants (legumes are an exception) are unable to “pull” it directly out of the air, taking the nutrients from the soil instead. Fertilizers introduce nitrogen to most crops this way, but this new agri-tech breakthrough would allow plants to pull this valuable element out of the air itself. From the University of Nottingham’s press release:

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, most notably legumes (such as peas, beans and lentils) 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 currently being grown across the world, this also means a reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. […]

Speaking about the technology, which is known as ‘N-Fix’, [Professor Edward Cocking, Director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation] 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.”

If this kind of technology can be scaled up efficiently and cost-effectively, it could be an answer to the alarmists concerned that we won’t be able to grow enough crops to feed the growing word population. This is yet another reminder of the folly of predicting future trends based on current technology. The pace of technological innovation is growing, and that acceleration isn’t just affecting consumer technology like smartphones or laptops, it’s producing potential solutions like this one to some of the world’s more pressing future problems.

[Soybean field image courtesy of Shutterstock]

Features Icon
show comments
  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    This has been the holy grail of agricultural science for decades, and I hope news of “N-Fix” doesn’t turn out to be some cold fusion or global warming type hoax.
    What are the environmentalists going to do now? They have been trying to stop genetically engineered crops for decades, now comes the ultimate Frankencrop, and any farmer that fails to use it, will be driven out of business paying for fertilizer.

    • Honk

      It is not even GMO, that is the amazing thing.

      • Andrew Allison

        “Professor Edward Cocking, Director of 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.”

        • Honk

          They are not GMO. They are natural bacteria.

          • Andrew Allison

            The release clearly states: ” . . . putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria INTO the cells of plant roots.” Aside from which, there’s no such thing as a non-GMO; evolution and hybridization are results of gene modification.

          • Kimmy84

            So GMO is the same as evolution. What is wrong with it then? And see my post to you above about how wrong you are about the process.

          • Andrew Allison

            There’s absolutely nothing wrong with GMO — as I wrote, every organism is genetically modified. Intracellular bacterial colonization enabling plants to fix atmospheric nitrogen appears to me to be close enough.

          • Kimmy84

            Since you approve, you might want to address your other error:

            ” In other words, like legumes, these GMOs are fixing nitrogen in the soil, not in the air.”

          • Honk

            The release also says that the bacteria are natural and not the result of GM. Not that I care, but it will slow down the ecofreaks.

  • Honk

    I heard about this weeks ago.

  • Andrew Allison

    This post would have been more informative had it pointed out that the breakthrough consists of inserting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots.In other words, like legumes, these GMOs are fixing nitrogen in the soil, not in the air.

    • Kimmy84

      There’s no genetic modification going on here. They’ve isolated a strain of bacteria that they coat a seed with. When the seed germinates, the bacteria enter through the roots into the entire plant, allowing nitrogen fixation.

      • Andrew Allison

        The word used was inserting, not coating, but thanks for pointing out that it is all the cells of the plant that are modified, thereby enabling atmospheric fixation.

        • Kimmy84

          There are many reports on this study. I looked at as many as I could so as to clarify some of the issues this article didn’t cover.

  • teapartydoc

    How many times does Malthus have to be disproved?

    • Kimmy84

      That’s the ‘beauty’ of Malthusian thought, he will always be right “next time”.

      I’ve read the comments at other stories on this, and there’s always a number of “this makes me nervous” or “this is a bad idea”. All based on feelings.

      Nope, Tommy will always be with us.

      • f1b0nacc1

        Just like his good friend Karl

  • Keapon Laffin

    Feeding the world is very nice indeed.

    Think of the other implications. Nitrogen fertilizer is explosive or can easily be made into explosive compounds.
    This would make it harder for terrorists to do bad things.
    Also, ecological changes. Most likely benefits. Crops will no longer remove nitrates from the soil. Like legumes they may even put nitrates into the soil. Either way, there is more nitrogen available for other life. I’m sure it’ll make the earthworms happy but also opens an easier path to creating rich soil, then exporting it to barren lands.
    The press release didn’t mention if they did, or did not, try it on non-crop plants. Want to try rebuilding a clear-cut rain forest?
    Lemurs live in rain forests, right? And they’re fun to watch. We all need more lemurs.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service