Four teams of researchers in the United States and the United Kingdom recently were awarded more than $12 million by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and U.K.’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) to begin a program of novel research to revolutionize current farming methods by giving crops the ability to thrive without using costly, polluting artificial fertilizers.
The four highly innovative projects encompass: an effort to use synthetic biology to create new useful components for plants; a global search for a mysterious lost bacterium with significant unique functions; work to engineer beneficial relationships between plants and microbes; and an effort to mimic ingenious strategies employed by blue-green algae.
Artificial fertilizers are costly and are produced using vast amounts of fossil fuel. They also generate environmental problems from degrading soil to runoff into rivers where they pollute fresh waters and coastal zones. As a result, crops need an alternative from which they can gather needed nitrogen.
According to researchers, there is plenty of environmentally-safe nitrogen in the atmosphere, but it is unusable. Atmospheric nitrogen needs to be ‘fixed’, they say, meaning it needs to be converted into a form that plants can use. With funding from both NSF and BBSRC, these projects offer technological stepping stones to reduce the need for artificial fertilizers by enabling crops to fix their own nitrogen.
By 2015, more than 190.4 million tons of it will be needed to supply the world’s food. Most farms rely on great quantities of industrially-produced, nitrogen-rich fertilizer to ensure crop yields.