Pesticides choke pathway for nature to produce nitrogen for crops

Many farmers applying pesticides to boost crop yields may instead be contributing to growth problems, scientists report in a new study.

According to years of research both in the test tube and, now, with real plants, a team of scientists reports that artificial chemicals in pesticides through application or exposure to crops through runoff disrupt natural nitrogen-fixing communications between crops and soil bacteria. The disruption results in lower yields or significantly delayed growth.

In a paper appearing online this week ahead of the regular publication by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the five-member team reports that agrichemicals bind to and block connections to specific receptors (NodD) inside rhizobia bacteria living in root nodules in the soil. Rotation legume crops such as alfalfa and soybeans require such interaction to naturally replace nitrogen levels that, in turn, benefit primary market crops like corn grown after legume rotations.

Legume plants secrete chemical signals that recruit the friendly bacteria, which work with the plants to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia that, then, is used as fertilizer by the plants.

"Agrichemicals are blocking the host plant's phytochemical recruitment signal," said the study's lead author, Jennifer E. Fox, a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Oregon. "In essence, the agrichemicals are cutting the lines of communication between the host plant and symbiotic bacteria. This is the mechanism by which these chemicals reduce symbiosis and nitrogen fixation."

Fox began the project as a doctoral student with John A. McLachlan, director of the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane University. She is working at the University of Oregon as a National Institutes of Health and National Research Service Award postdoctoral fellow under Joe Thornton, a professor

Contact: Jim Barlow
University of Oregon

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