Technological development may reduce agricultural nitrogen pollution
Nitrogen used in agricultural fertilizer and is a major source of pollution in the Gulf of Mexico, causing a hazardous 'dead zone' that is depleted of oxygen.
A technological development may revolutionize agriculture and also be of benefit to the natural environment. Developed by The University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom, the new technology may enable staple crops such as wheat, soybeans, and maize (corn) to synthesize necessary nitrogen from the ambient air rather than from expensive fertilizers that harm the environment.
Professor Edward Cocking, who directs Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation developed a method of putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots. The discovery came when he found a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar-cane which intra-cellularly colonizes all major crop plants. This may potentially provide 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 fixation is the natural process by which nitrogen is converted to ammonia. While it isvital for plants to survive and grow, 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. Most plants have to obtain nitrogen from the soil. For most crop plants, this means a reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.
Dr Susan Huxtable, Director of Intellectual Property Commercialisation at The University of Nottingham, said that the new technology has implications for agriculture. Said Huxtable, “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 fertilizers. It is a great example of how University research can have a world-changing impact.” The technology has been licensed by the university to Azotic Technologies for commercialization. Azotic is conducting field trials to determine the efficacy of the N-Fix. After regulatory approval has been obtained the United States, the United Kingdom, Europe, Canada and Brazil, other countries will follow. It could become commercially available within the next three years.
Professor Cocking had long recognized that there is a critical need to reduce nitrogen pollution caused by nitrogen based fertilizers. According to Nottingham, nitrate pollution is a major problem as is also the pollution of the atmosphere by ammonia and oxides of nitrogen. Besides, this pollution is a health hazard and also causes oxygen-depleted ‘dead zones’ in our waterways and oceans. In the Gulf of Mexico, a dead zone along the coast of Louisiana has developed year after year. Currently, it is calculated to have an area of 5,800 square miles – or about the size of the state of Connecticut. This oxygen depleted zone is a hazard to fishing, since organisms such as shrimp and fish die within seconds once they enter the most heavily affected areas of the dead zone. The fishing industry in Louisiana is concerned about the steady drop in catches, and the possibility of health hazards for consumers.
In Europe, a recent study estimates that that the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen pollution across Europe is $9.2 billion to $40 billion per year.
Of his discovery, 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 fertilizers 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
Dubbed ‘N-Fix’, it is neither a genetic modification nor a form of bio-engineering. According to the University of Nottingham, “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.”
N-Fix is billed as a natural nitrogen seed coating that provides a sustainable solution to fertilizer overuse and Nitrogen pollution. Following 10 years of research in the laboratory and controlled environments, the university believes that it is environmentally friendly and can be applied to all crops.
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