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.”

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