New Study Reports Plants May Create Fertilizer from Thin Air

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Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis suggested that genetically engineered plants may create fertilizer from air.

A group of researchers from Pakraski Lab at the Washington University in St. Louis studied the nitrogen-fixing bacteria to transfer its key trait into plants. The study promises to develop genetically-engineered plants that can develop their own fertilizer by using atmospheric nitrogen to create chlorophyll for photosynthesis. Himadri Pakrasi and Maitrayee Bhattacharyya, the two Indian origin scientists at the lab engineered a bacteria that uses photosynthesis to create oxygen during the day. , and at night, uses nitrogen to create chlorophyll for photosynthesis. This discovery could have a revolutionary effect on agriculture and the health of the planet and could eliminate the use of some human-made fertilizer, which has a high environmental cost. The research was published in the journal mBio on July 17, 2018.

The team observed a subset of cyanobacteria that can fix nitrogen from the air and Cyanothece bacteria used in the research is able to fix nitrogen as it has a circadian rhythm. It was observed that Cyanothece converts sunlight to the chemical energy and remove most of the oxygen created during photosynthesis through respiration to fix nitrogen at night. The genes responsible for this mechanism was isolated from Cyanothece and put them into another type of cyanobacteria— Synechocystis. It facilities fixing of nitrogen from the air. The researchers are further analyzing the details of the process to narrow down subset of genes necessary for nitrogen fixation. Furthermore, the team is focusing on new collaborations with other botanists to apply the lessons learned from this study to the next level: developing nitrogen-fixing plants.

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