Norwich scientists have won $9.8m (£6.2m) in funding to engineer a breakthrough in plant biology which could revolutionise subsistence farming in the developing world.

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Prof Giles Oldroyd at the John Innes Centre in Colney will lead an international team of researchers in an effort to find a way to persuade bacteria to help cereals self-fertilise – regarded as one of the Holy Grails of the bio-sciences field.

The five-year project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will research whether it is possible to initiate a symbiosis between cereals and nitrogen-fixing bacteria, by transferring the genetic capability which already exists in legumes like peas and beans.

If successful, it will enable crops to take the nitrogen needed for their growth from the air, vastly improving yields without the need for expensive nitrate fertiliser.

That could have a dramatic effect on the productivity of poor farms in Africa, but could also benefit UK farmers by reducing their reliance on costly chemicals.

“During the Green Revolution, nitrogen fertilisers helped triple cereal yields in some areas,” said Prof Oldroyd. “But these chemicals are unaffordable for small-scale farmers in the developing world.

“As a result, their yields are extraordinarily low – 20pc of the international average. Here in the UK we are applying fertilisers to our fields at a huge cost to farmers. If we can get nitrogen-fixing into cereals, we wouldn’t need those fertilisers, so it would be beneficial to UK farmers as well.

“It is one of the biggest challenges in plant biology to get nitrogen-fixing cereals. It is never going to be simple and I doubt that this five-year programme will be enough to achieve that, but I see it as a first step and I am keeping an open mind.

“It is ‘blue-sky’ research but we have to try because solving this problem is so important.

“There are no guarantees, that is the nature of science. But it is a big push forward and it is really exciting. I really hope that I can make a difference for African subsistence farmers.”

If the process is found to work, farmers would be able to share the technology by sharing seed.

The focus of the investigation will be maize, the most important staple crop for small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, but discoveries will be applicable to all cereal crops including wheat, barley and rice.

The research will start by attempting to engineer in maize the ability to sense nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria. This may be enough to activate a symbiosis that provides some fixed nitrogen. Even slight increases could improve yields for farmers who do not have access to fertilisers.

In the most basic symbiosis, bacteria are housed in simple swellings on the root of the plant, providing the low oxygen environment needed. In more highly-evolved legumes, the plant produces a specialised organ, the nodule, to house bacteria.

As the complexity of the interaction increases, so does the efficiency with which bacteria fix nitrogen for the plant.

“We have developed a pretty good understanding of how legumes such as peas and beans evolved the ability to recruit soil bacteria to access the nitrogen they need,” said Prof Oldroyd.

“Even the most primitive symbiotic relationship with bacteria benefited the plant, and this is where we hope to start in cereals. In the long term, we anticipate that the research will follow the evolutionary path, building up the level of complexity and improving the benefits to the plant.”

Prof Oldroyd will lead a team of about 20 scientists based in Norwich, Denmark, France and the US.

Katherine Kahn, senior program officer of agricultural development at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, said: “We’re excited about the long-term potential of this research to transform the lives of small farmers who depend on agriculture for their food and livelihoods.

“We need innovation for farmers to increase their productivity in a sustainable way so that they can lift themselves and their families out of poverty. Improving access to nitrogen could dramatically boost the crop yields of farmers in Africa.”

8 comments

  • This is evil Monsanto trying to get in the backdoor. They are looking at a potential $7.5 Billion fine to reimburse 5 million Brazillain farmers for illegal charges. Nearly 75 million acres of arable land there grow Monsanto crops. Bill Gates is using vaccines and GM crops to sterilize the world. Agent Orange is already being used WTH, it's all good for the drug companies profits. Millions of Indian farmers are committing suicide because of GM crops, shame John Innes didn't carry out any research before agreeing to trouser the money. More sad news for Norfolk.

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    Honest John

    Sunday, July 15, 2012

  • nrg: I haven't found any statistic anywhere that backs up the statement that "millions of Indian farmers are commiting suicide because of GM crops". Suicide amongst farmers in India has sadly had a long history pre-dating the introduction of GM cotton. I just think the case against GM cotton, in India's case, can be made more strongly without using inflated and unattributable statistics.

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    Roger Mainwood

    Monday, July 16, 2012

  • “It is ‘blue-sky’ research but we have to try because solving this problem is so important". Oh dear. More university educated idiots using cr*p speak.

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    "V"

    Sunday, July 15, 2012

  • Why do we have to go along this path in this country? Leave this GMO rubbish to Monsanto, they have corn which the worm has adapted to within 15yrs, grass that poisons animals after 2 droughts and who knows what else, I hear a new version of DDT(Agent orange is one the cards, bar a 1 chain change for our next pesticide) Can we not make a name in crossing, how many grains etc to try? How's that GMO corn doing in America at the moment? If it is to really help poor farmers, then I have some ideas from research on this, if just to depopulate then nope.

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    WTH

    Sunday, July 15, 2012

  • re. Honest John: "...Millions of Indian farmers are committing suicide because of GM crops". Whoah - let's not over state things. Some references on that one would be useful.

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    Roger Mainwood

    Monday, July 16, 2012

  • Sub-Sahara population control, lower the sperm count or female fertility to Euro standards, and all Bill Gates worries disappear as he saves the world....grow your own and save yourselves.

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    nrg

    Sunday, July 15, 2012

  • Roger google ..Every 30 Minutes an Indian Farmer Commits Su*cide, cotton farmers unable to repay loans; they then top themselves..often by drinking the chemicals they bought in the first place to protect their crop. Monsanto moves in and buys the dead farmers land at a knock down price to clear the debt the farmer owed them...In the brave new (3rd) world future, the globalists have no time for the small farmer, all must go as the big boys move in and do their thing..progress (sic).

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    nrg

    Monday, July 16, 2012

  • Prof Oldroyd says this grant is for ‘blue-sky’ research. Most scientists would define that as research where "real-world" applications are not immediately apparent. The organisation GM Freeze points out that nitrogen fixing wheat and other cereals have been promised by the GM industry for several decades. Real world results are limited however because the changes GM forces plants to make are genetically and ecologically very complex and the fact that the nitrogen fixing bacterium used in attempted GM naturally forms a symbiotic relationship with leguminous plants, such as beans and clover, not cereals. Pete Riley, Campaign Director of GM Freeze, added: “This project is a waste of money that should have been used on more important and urgent research. “Depleted soils are a big problem in many places. In Europe and North America we also need to rebuild our soil structure and fertility after 60 years of nutrient draining, intensive production. This means longer rotations and greater crop diversity, including existing nitrogen fixing crops. GM technology moves in the wrong direction and assumes we can find ways to force more food out of exhausted soils rather than working with the soil for productivity now and into the future. “We also need to ensure that nitrogen and other essential plant nutrients are not wasted by poor handling of organic waste, badly designed sewage treatment processes and abandonment of sound farming practices. GM nitrogen fixing crops have not shown much progress to date, and waiting decades longer for institutions like The Gates Foundation and John Innes Centre to play around with the genetics, and maybe fail, is not a good use of money when we know where the answers lie. “If the Gates Foundation wants ideas on how to spend US$10 million more productively, soil scientists from around the world will not be short of ideas.” It's a pity only one view on this reserach was given space in the article.

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    Roger Mainwood

    Monday, July 16, 2012

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