The researchers, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Royal Society and the US National Science Foundation, have used a key gene that legumes require to establish the interaction with the nitrogen-fixing bacteria to trigger the growth of root nodules, even in the absence of the bacteria.
The fixation of nitrogen by some plants is critical to maintaining the health of soil as it converts the inert atmospheric form of nitrogen into compounds usable by plants. Legumes, as used in this study, are an important group of plants as they have the ability to fix nitrogen which they owe to a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria in root nodules. Legumes are often used as a rotation crop to naturally enhance the nitrogen content of soils. Scientists have been working for a number of years to understand the symbiosis between legumes and rhizobial bacteria, with the hope that one day they can transfer this trait to crop plants, the majority of which cannot fix nitrogen themselves.
Intensive crop agriculture depends heavily on inorganic fertilisers that are often used to provide nutrients particularly nitrogen that are critical for plant growth. The production of nitrogen fertilisers requires a large amount of energy and is estimated to constitute approximately 50 per cent of the fossil fuel usage of the modern agricultural process. Inorganic fertilizers also cause environmental problems associated with leeching into our water systems.
Contact: Matt Goode
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council