Nottingham University finds key to nitrogen fixing

In what must rank as one of the most important discoveries ever in agricultural science, The University of Nottingham has developed a process that enables any crop to take nitrogen from the air.

Currently, 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 relying on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

Now, however, the director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, Professor Edward Cocking (pictured), has developed a unique method of putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of any plant’s roots.

His major breakthrough came when he found a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar-cane that he discovered could intracellularly colonise all major crops. This ground-breaking development potentially provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen.

The implications for agriculture are enormous as initial research work has shown the new technology can provide much of the plant’s nitrogen needs – work with grass has shown that the use of synthetic nitrogen is reduced by 50%. Field trials are now underway to produce robust efficacy data, and it’s anticipated that the N-Fix technology will be commercially available within the next two to three years.

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