N-Fix Tech Allows Crops to Harvest Nitrogen From the Air Instead of Fertilizers

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 have developed a technology—termed nitrogen fixation—that allows plant to take nitrogen directly from the air. A special bacteria takes up nitrogen from the air and applies it to plant seeds as coating, enabling each plant cell to spontaneously ‘fix’ nitrogen. The new technology could be commercially available within the next couple of years and it has the potential to replace environmentally damaging fertilizers.

Plants must fix nitrogen and convert it to ammonia in order to survive and grow – however, only a few plants, such as peas and lentils, have the ability to do so with the help of a symbiotic bacteria. Most plants must acquire nitrogen from soil through either a natural or artificial source.

N-Fix Crop

To bring atmospheric nitrogen fixing capabilities to any plant, Edward Cocking, director of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, has created a way to put symbiotic bacteria into the cells of plant roots by identifying a particular strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar-cane. The professor found that this unique strain is capable of colonizing the cells of all major crop plants. The development means that cell in a plant could potentially have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen by itself.

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.

The technology also has the potential to reduce nitrate pollution, which is a health hazard and can cause oxygen-depleted ‘dead zones’ in affected waterways.

The University of Nottingham said they have entered into a partnership with Azotic Technologies Ltd to develop and commercialize N-Fix on a global scale.

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.”
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Write by: RC - Saturday, July 27, 2013

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