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N-Fix tech could drastically reduce agricultural fertilizer use

By

July 26, 2013

Prof. Edward Cocking, developer of the N-Fix system

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

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away.   All articles by Ben Coxworth
21 Comments

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?

Kim Holder
26th July, 2013 @ 08:35 pm PDT

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.

Mindbreaker
26th July, 2013 @ 10:38 pm PDT

I am not convinced that spreading a South American bacteria around the world is a better idea than over fertilization.

Slowburn
27th July, 2013 @ 07:53 am PDT

Congratulations. I hope for all the best that this is a big step towards sustainability.

Now to find a solution for phosphate fertilizers...

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
27th July, 2013 @ 09:13 am PDT

The oil company would never allow this. Dream on.

Eddie
27th July, 2013 @ 02:01 pm PDT

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.

Chizzy
27th July, 2013 @ 10:45 pm PDT

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.

Slowburn
28th July, 2013 @ 08:45 pm PDT

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.

Chizzy
28th July, 2013 @ 10:38 pm PDT

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

Sumagrow
29th July, 2013 @ 03:45 am PDT

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...

squigbobble
29th July, 2013 @ 05:53 am PDT

re; squigbobble

The efficiency of of overshot water wheels is not in question but they take a waterfall or a dam or a long pipe. If there is a waterfall there is no need for additional aeration. I am aerating the water to get rid of a dead zone the electricity is a bonus that will in time pay for the instillation. If my primary purpose was generating electricity I would install underwater windmills. Also the instillation could be made to look like a paddle wheel steam boat working up river; call it art.

re; Chizzy

A lot of the genetic modifications are done to make the plants produce insecticides. This increases the amount of the the poisons being introduced into the environment.

I am opposed to the gene engineering because they have spent so much money to keep from having to label their products. Also there is no evidence that they have increased yields.

Slowburn
29th July, 2013 @ 08:35 am PDT

@Kim Holder: "If this was such a great natural advantage, wouldn't it have spread throughout the plant kingdom a long time ago?"

That's not really how evolution works. For one, the plants that don't have this symbiotic relationship with this bacteria are already surviving just fine. Perhaps legumes evolved in a region with low nitrogen content in the soil, which could explain why they have this relationship with this bacteria. Other plants clearly have been able to easily obtain nitrogen from the soil for millions of years.

Additionally, agriculture is relatively new on geologic timescales. That's not enough time for plants to evolve due simply to human pressures.

Evolution is also a crap shoot. Just because some mutation or symbiotic relationship might be beneficial doesn't mean an organism will automatically obtain that.

Stradric
29th July, 2013 @ 08:50 am PDT

Kim Holder asks: "If this was such a great natural advantage, wouldn't it have spread throughout the plant kingdom a long time ago?"

My question is: "If an opposable thumb is such a great natural advantage, wouldn't it have spread throughout the animal kingdom a long time ago?"

Both questions are just silly.

Xander77
29th July, 2013 @ 12:37 pm PDT

Interesting article and comments. Thanks Sumagrow. It will be interesting to see how this develops and if it indeed can address more elegantly the fertilization of plants without the negative effects of fertilizing the oceans and waterways of the world.

David

ADVENTUREMUFFIN
29th July, 2013 @ 01:48 pm PDT

Good idea as long as it doesn't lead to more GMO's altering the ecology of our only home planet.

ezeflyer
29th July, 2013 @ 02:09 pm PDT

re; squigbobble part 2

The aerating affect of the wave machines would reduce the dead zone not create a dead zone.

Slowburn
29th July, 2013 @ 06:12 pm PDT

If N-fix will reduce the need for synthetic fertilizer by 60%, and the plants are just as strong, I'm for it as an interim fix.

The agriculture business has been going downhill for many decades, contrary to the propaganda from the chemical companies partly responsible. The main fault lies with the farmer. He has neglected to understand his business. For the farmer,"taking care of business" literally means taking care of his soil. In general, soil health is in decline.

Reliance on the quick fix of synthetic fertilizers reduces soil fertility. This creates a continuing dependence (an addiction?) to more chemicals. To keep yields up and compensate for declining soil fertility higher amounts nitrogen are needed. This even gives higher yields sometimes, but at the cost of plant health. Weaker plants have lower resistance to decease and pests. Hence, more pesticide and herbicide sprays are needed. Commercially grown crops are also less nutritious than their healthier organic competition.

The question every farmer needs to ask: Is my soil getting healthier? Every year he should be building soil fertility.

Sustainable farming without herbicides, pesticides, or commercial fertilizers is not only possible, it is cheaper. See: "The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy", by Masanobu Fukuoka.

Don Duncan
29th July, 2013 @ 06:32 pm PDT

@MINDBREAKER: "Fixing" the nitrogen does not magically convert just the nitrogen into a bioavailable form; to "fix" atmospheric nitrogen as these bacteria do is to combine it chemically with other substances, chiefly with oxygen, in the form of nitrates and various oxides of nitrogen.

So the danger is real, but the opposite of what you are suggesting: fixing atmospheric nitrogen en masse will deplete atmospheric oxygen long before it makes a dent in the nitrogen.

@Chizzy: You are grossly underestimating the capacity of the biosphere to affect atmospheric composition. The atmosphere that we have now, with lots of oxygen and trace CO2, is entirely biogenic. In fact, there were already two catastrophes in the Earth's history, where a newly evolved biochemistry caused a mass extinction by making the atmosphere toxic:

One was the oxygenation event, when the newly evolved photosynthetic bacteria poisoned the atmosphere with oxygen---it's what we're breathing now :-)

The other was the Permian extinction, which is increasingly believed to have been caused by biogenic release of hydrogen sulfide, mostly into the oceans and partly into the atmosphere.

Thus it is entirely feasible to cause a catastrophe by introducing a widespread biochemical capacity to fix nitrogen, resulting in the fatal conversion of atmospheric oxygen into nitrogen oxides. This doomsday scenario has already been explored in science fiction; read _The Nitrogen Fix_ by Hal Clement.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nitrogen_Fix

Freederick
30th July, 2013 @ 02:00 am PDT

If this can spread to weeds, it will. Think kudzu. Nitrogen fixing. Great cow fodder. Kills trees, whole forests, even. Now imagine nitrogen fixing hog weed. Please test on a remote island, such as England.

MBadgero
31st July, 2013 @ 08:05 am PDT

If accumulation of atmospheric nitrogen will decrease atmospheric pressure then perhaps it will be replaced by the massive amounts of nitrogen in our oceans.

Decreased pressure will lower the boiling point of water and other molecules/compounds ever so slightly but have such a large impact since water and it's effluents covers two thirds of our planet.

Gary Richardson
3rd August, 2013 @ 03:12 am PDT

The said N-Fix technology has the potential to change the nutrition aspect w.r.t. N. Having said so, there are a number of questions regarding the technology:

1. The organisms are said to be natural. If so, why it was not fixing N earlier?

2. Whether the carrier material is anything to do with colonisation?

3. How expensive is the technology?

Pradip Dey
17th September, 2013 @ 02:03 am PDT
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