Professor Edward Cocking, Director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, has developed a unique method of putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots.  The sensational breakthrough came when he found a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar cane that he discovered could intracellularly colonize all major crop plants.

This groundbreaking development potentially provides 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, the process by which nitrogen is converted to ammonia, is vital for plants to survive and grow. However, 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. The vast majority of plants have to obtain nitrogen from the soil, and for most crops currently being grown across the world, this also means a reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

Professor Edward Cocking Overlooks Lab Activities  Click image for the largest view.  Image Credit: University of Nottingham.

Professor Edward Cocking Overlooks Lab Activities Click image for the largest view. Image Credit: University of Nottingham.

A leading world expert in nitrogen and plant science, Professor Cocking has long recognized that there is a critical need to reduce waterway nitrogen pollution caused by excessive use of nitrogen based fertilizers. Nitrate pollution is a major problem and nitrogen fertilizer production and application is also a polluter of the atmosphere by ammonia and the released oxides of nitrogen.

Nitrate pollution is a health hazard and also causes oxygen-depleted ‘dead zones’ in our waterways and oceans. A recent study estimates that that the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen pollution across Europe is £60 billion to £280 ($92 to $431) billion a year.

Most nitrogen fertilizer production is made from natural gas and the production process is energized with natural gas as well.

Speaking about the technology, which is known as ‘N-Fix’, 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.”

N-Fix is neither genetic modification nor bioengineering. It is a naturally occurring nitrogen fixing bacteria that 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 a natural nitrogen seed coating that provides a sustainable solution to fertilizer overuse and nitrogen pollution. It is environmentally friendly and can be applied to all crops. Over the last 10 years, The University of Nottingham has conducted a series of extensive research programs that have established proof of principal of the technology in the laboratory, growth rooms and glasshouses.

Dr Susan Huxtable, Director of Intellectual Property Commercialization at The University of Nottingham, believes that the N-Fix technology has significant implications for agriculture, she said: “There is a substantial global market for the N-Fix technology, as it can be applied globally to all crops. N-Fix 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 N-Fix technology has been licensed by The University of Nottingham to Azotic Technologies Ltd to develop and commercialize N-Fix globally on its behalf for all crop species.

Peter Blezard, CEO of Azotic Technologies added: “Agriculture has to change and N-Fix can make a real and positive contribution to that change. It has enormous potential to help feed more people in many of the poorer parts of the world, while at the same time, dramatically reducing the amount of synthetic nitrogen produced in the world.”

In what could be an alarming fact the proof of concept has already been demonstrated. The uptake and fixation of nitrogen in a range of crop species has been proven to work in the laboratory and Azotic is now working on field trials in order to produce robust efficacy data.  The field trials will be followed by efforts seeking regulatory approval for N-Fix initially in the UK, Europe, USA, Canada and Brazil, with more countries to follow.

It is anticipated that the N-Fix technology will be commercially available within the next two to three years.


4 Comments so far

  1. Matt Musson on July 29, 2013 8:33 AM

    This is a HUGE deal. It is good for the environment and potentially good for farmers as well. And, as you point out, it does not involve genetic modification so the Luddites cannot complain about it.

  2. jpstraley on July 29, 2013 9:18 AM

    Once these bateria are used in the field they will jump from one plant to the next. Now you have weeds that have a great advantage over wild-types. Any plants that can easily accomodate these bacteria have a huge advantage, and can grow to nuisance in their various niches. for instance Southern Pines have a small need for N-fertilizer, and are happy in their systems because not much else can complete…just let scrub oaks or some other competitor get hold of wild types of these bugs and see what happens!

  3. Jagdish on July 29, 2013 11:03 PM

    A big plus of the technology, if successfully implemented, is resultant fixation of atmospheric carbon dioxide. A big minus, as mentioned in the comment above, is weeds. Let us hope that we can convert all the biomass of weeds to synthetic fuel.

  4. Matt Musson on July 30, 2013 7:34 AM

    These bacteria already exist in the wild. So, I don’t think we have to worry about some Frankenstein event if we apply them to corn or wheat.

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