Nitrogen fertilizer is a necessary man made soil additive for two important food crops, rice and corn, that need substantial amounts of natural gas to be made. The past two weeks have seen two noteworthy news releases that promise that the genes of plants that use the air and soil components and symbiotic bacteria, fungi and enzymes to source soil nitrogen for the plant’s use. It is expected that these discoveries will make their way into seed stocks in the future. It would lead to a dramatic decline in the need for natural gas to make nitrogen fertilizer and the use of anhydrous ammonia, a commonly overused fertilizer that contaminates ground and run off water. It should offer relief from the contest of food vs. fuel.

Assorted Rice Varieties

Some plants like legumes such as bean plants have a gene pathway that serves to have the plant interact with either bacteria that fix nitrogen into the soil or mycorrhizal fungi that interact with the plant roots that increases the uptake of nitrogen, phosphorus and water. The genetic mechanism was discovered by a team of French and German scientists that have identified the common genetic mechanism that allows the symbiosis to function.

Except or it is and?

Another paper came out a week later that offers that nitrogen in soils is part of the ecosystem and is found in soil proteins, much more complex molecules than NH2 or NH3. The common view was that these forms of locked up nitrogen were not available to plants. Yet the researchers at the University of Queensland, Queensland, Australia, and the Institute of Plant Sciences, University of Bern, Switzerland are saying that the plants studied, a woody plant Hakea actites, and a herbaceous model plant Arabidopsis thaliana are exuding proteolytic enzymes that digest the proteins at the root surface or even in the apoplast of the root cortex. This research adds a third pathway for nitrogen and phosphorus to enter plants as nutrients.

So is it all three?

There is the problem. Which of these or combination of the genetic information is going to be most useful or quicker to be introduced into the seed stock?

Inorganic fertilizers are essential but increasingly unaffordable need for subsistence farming. Worldwide an estimated 130 million metric tones if nitrogen fertilizer was consumed and phosphate demand stood at about 37 million metric tones during 2007. Natural gas prices and the essential need for a wide array of food plants has driven the northern hemisphere’s spring price to more than twice the price of spring 2007. Some crops such as corn have strong needs for nitrogen and require large amounts to applied year after year. Any application of gene technology that in part, marginally or temporarily removes inorganic fertilizer demand will increase food availability and reduce prices.

Assorted Varieties of Corn

That makes these two perspectives about moving plant’s native ability to use nitrogen very important indeed. Corn is used primarily for a starch food for protein producing animals, as synthetic sweeteners and for fuel. People eat rice directly and rice maybe the single most vulnerable crop in the world today. Should genetic designs offer these two crops a way to produce grain without the added input of inorganic synthetic fertilizer a major positive shift in world food supplies and fuel supplies would take place.

Attempts to move the genetic code necessary have likely been initiated by now, only a few days after the announcements. This will lead to a better comprehension of the genetic mechanisms that may well improve humanities development of techniques to transfer genetic materials.

First up will be rice as it does form symbiotic relations with mycorrhizal fungus now. However, the gene to form the nitrogen fixing nodules is the main benefit from the first research noted above. What will follow is one of the research results or another yet to announced or discovered will be applied to corn soon.

Assorted Wheat Varieties

This breakthrough is important to one more major food crop, wheat. There is a list of grass genus food grains beyond rice, corn and wheat that includes barley, sorghum, oats, rye and others that are important foodstuffs around the world.

This news while important to foods will have an impact on fuel and energy supplies, too. But for today, for me, it’s a great sigh of relief, new hope is in sight for more, better, cheaper and less environmentally difficult ways to feed ourselves.


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