BOZEMAN – A Montana State University professor has been tapped to join a $12 million international research effort to give farmers the ability to boost productivity while using less fossil fuel-dependent industrial fertilizer, which has undergone dramatic price increases in recent years.
John Peters, MSU professor of chemistry and biochemistry and director of MSU’s Astrobiology and Life in Extreme Environments Program, will join one of four projects looking to transform future farming. Along with four investigators from other universities in the U.S. and two from British institutions, Peters will be part of a search for ways to promote beneficial relationships between plants and bacteria that will result in reducing the amount of fertilizers used on crops.
“This is a novel approach to promoting relationships between plants and bacteria that promises to make a number of fundamental scientific advances with the potential to make game-changing advances in agriculture,” said Peters. “We are intent on designing a symbiosis between plant and microorganism in which the plant would provide the carbon source needed to feed the bacteria and the bacteria would turn nitrogen into an available form such as ammonium. It would be a process that doesn’t require an energy intensive industrial product.”
The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and U.K.'s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) made the $12 million in awards following an 'Ideas Lab' that focused on developing new approaches for dealing with the challenges of nitrogen in the growing global food demand. NSF solely awarded one of the four projects, while joint U.S.-United Kingdom funding was awarded to the other three.
The four projects include: an effort to use synthetic biology to create new useful components for plants; a search for a bacterium with significant beneficial functions; work to promote beneficial relationships between plants and microbes; and an effort to mimic strategies employed by blue-green algae.
Plants need nitrogen to grow, and by 2015 more than 190 million tons of it will be needed to supply the world's food. Most farms rely on great quantities of industrially produced nitrogen-rich fertilizer to ensure crop yields but doing so comes with trade-offs.
The production of fertilizers is costly and uses vast amounts of fossil fuel. In some cases, the application of fertilizer can lead to environmental problems, such as degraded soil and runoff that can pollute fresh waters and coastal zones. As a result, crops need an alternative from which they can gather needed nitrogen.
Certain plants have developed close symbiotic relationships with bacteria that are typically held in root nodules where they convert the nitrogen gas found abundantly in the air into ammonia that plants need for growth.
In addition to Peters, a graduate student and a post-doctoral researcher at MSU, groups at the University of Wisconsin, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation and England’s John Innes Centre will focus on genetically altering a nitrogen-fixing bacteria and a simple grass species, which is similar to more complex cereals such as corn, to ensure a lock-and-key interaction between plant and microbe. The process should maximize nitrogen fixation by the bacteria and the amount of usable nitrogen delivered to the plant.
“This research could … increase crop yields for resource-poor farmers and decrease the use and environmental impact of industrial fertilizers by wealthier farmers,” said Philip Poole, a microbiologist at the John Innes Centre, which conducts research and training in plant and microbial science.
Once the researchers have perfected the technique on simple grass, they hope to develop effective interactions between plants in the corn family and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.
The project will bring about $1 million in research expenditures to MSU over five years, Peters said.
His team will be working closely with researchers in the lab of Chris Voigt, an associate professor of biological engineering at MIT.
“It’s a great project for MSU,” Peters said. “My lab has had a long history in doing multi-institutional projects, and I’ve always found they are great opportunities for students here at MSU to be involved directly in collaborating with investigators at these other programs.”
Rebecca Mahurin, director of the MSU Technology Transfer Office, said MSU’s involvement in an international research effort to explore the science at the root of future farming technologies is the land-grant university mission in action.
“This just shows how basic science aimed at understanding the plants and animals of our world becomes the building blocks to something much bigger,” Mahurin said. “Research aimed at a better understanding of these processes often leads in turn to strategies and technologies that bring great benefit to our farmers and to our economy as a whole.”
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