A new research by scientists from the University of Washington in St. Louis shows that it could soon be possible to engineer plants to develop their own fertilizer.
This discovery could have a revolutionary effect on agriculture and the health of the planet.
The creation of fertilizers consumes a lot of energy and the process produces greenhouse gases that are an important driver of climate change, in addition to which the process is very inefficient.
The fertilization is a delivery system nitrogen that plants use to create chlorophyll for photosynthesis, but less than 40 percent of the nitrogen fertilizer reaches the plant. Another problem: fertilizers washed away by rain end up in streams, rivers, bays and lakes, feeding algae that can grow out of control, blocking sunlight and killing animal and plant life below.
However, there is another abundant source of nitrogen around us. The Earth’s atmosphere has 78 percent nitrogen and a bacterium that can use that atmospheric gas has just been designed, in a process known as “fixation” of nitrogen. A significant step towards engineering plants that could do the same.
The bacteria used in this research, Cyanothece, can fix nitrogen due to something it has in common with humans: it has circadian rhythm, which causes it to photosynthesize during the day, converting sunlight into the chemical energy they use as fuel, and fix nitrogen at night, after removing most of the oxygen created during photosynthesis.
The research team took the genes of Cyanothece , responsible for this circadian mechanism, and added them to another type of cyanobacteria, Synechocystis . With only 24 of the Cyanothece genes , Synechocystis wasable to fix nitrogen at a rate of more than 30 percent Cyanothece .
This means that the path opened by this group of researchers is feasible. When they are better acquainted with the details of the process and can further reduce the subset of genes needed for nitrogen fixation, the next step could be to directly devise nitrogen-fixing plants.
Agriculture, that activity so inherently anti-ecological since it began to develop in the Neolithic, could make a huge leap towards sustainability.