Norfolk research revolution for farming

PUBLISHED: 09:36 29 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:06 22 October 2010

Researchers in Norfolk are poised to revolutionise world farming and food production with a scientific discovery which could consign chemical fertilisers to the history books.

Researchers in Norfolk are poised to revolutionise world farming and food production with a scientific discovery which could consign chemical fertilisers to the history books.

Researchers have discovered how certain plants can create their own nitrogen - which could mean food growers will no longer have to rely on expensive, artificial fossil-fuel based fertilisers.

The important breakthrough - described as the “Holy Grail” of this area of science - by a team from the John Innes Centre at Colney, near Norwich, could make it possible to breed food crops like wheat, barley and rice capable of capturing nitrogen, the fuel for plant growth, which could help “feed the world”.

Scientists have been working for years to understand exactly why some plants capture nitrogen in tiny nodules on roots and now a key discovery has been made.

The team, led by Dr Giles Oldroyd, has managed to “trigger nodulation” in legume crops such as peas and beans using a key gene.

“Now that we know how a gene plays a key role in kickstarting the process, it will help us to understand how nodules might be grown on other plants,” said Dr Oldroyd.

“If we could get crops like wheat, barley or rice to fix their own nitrogen, it would revolutionise food production throughout the world.”

Learning how the plant ticks will make it possible to work out how this science might be applied or transferred to other crops.

It does not involve genetic modification (GM), but will pose new challenges to plant researchers to adapt the technology and could take some years, said Dr Oldroyd.

Dr Oldroyd said crops such as peas and beans capture nitrogen, which is freely available in the atmosphere, and then use it to feed the plant.

The roots and tiny root hairs recognise a microscopic type of soil-borne bacteria and a chemical signal is sent, which starts to create these nitrogen nodules.

Dr Oldroyd, who is the research leader of a group of 10 scientists at the JIC, said: “We now have a good understanding of the processes required to activate nodule development.

“The nodule is an essential component of this nitrogen fixing interaction as it provides the conditions required for the bacteria. Nodules are normally only formed when the plant perceives the presence of the bacteria.”

The discovery that plants could form root nodules without relying on soil bacteria is the crucial first step in transferring the trait to other food crops.

“This could really help to feed the world because every plant could grow its own nitrogen. I suppose that you could say that it has been the Holy Grail of plant science,” he said.

Some 60 million years ago, legumes evolved as plants capable of fixing nitrogen. “Now, we are trying to complete the process with other plants,” said Dr Oldroyd and colleague Dr Cynthia Gleason, who have been working with a team from Washington State University in the USA.

Cereal growers use large quantities of nitrogenous fertilisers, which are very energy intensive to make, in order to produce quality crops of milling wheat. “Then nitrogen leaches from the soil and is lost,” said Dr Oldroyd.

From the dawn of farming, legumes and cereal crops were grown side by side. And in the late 18th century, Coke of Norfolk urged farmers to grow legumes before a cereal crop.

The findings are revealed in the latest edition of the science journal, Nature, which is published today.

Scientists have more research to complete but Dr Oldroyd added: “The fact that we can induce the formation of nodules in the plant in the absence of the bacteria is an important first step in transferring this process to non-legumes.”

“If this could be achieved we could dramatically reduce the need for inorganic nitrogen fertilizers, in turn reducing environmental pollution and energy use. However, we still have a lot of work before we can generate nodulation in non-legumes.”

The scientific team was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Royal Society and the US National Science Foundation.

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