Plants may soon produce their own fertilisers

It may soon be possible to engineer plants that develop their own fertiliser by using atmospheric nitrogen to create chlorophyll for photosynthesis, according to researchers in the US.

The researchers from Washington University in the US engineered a bacteria that uses photosynthesis to create oxygen during the day, and at night, uses nitrogen to create chlorophyll for photosynthesis.

The research, published in the journal mBio, could eliminate the use of some — or possibly all — human-made fertiliser, which has a high environmental cost.

This discovery could have a revolutionary effect on agriculture and the health of the planet, according to Himadri Pakrasi and Maitrayee Bhattacharyya-Pakrasi from Washington University.

Creating fertiliser is energy intensive, and the process produces greenhouse gases that are a major driver of climate change.

Fertilising is a delivery system for nitrogen, which plants use to create chlorophyll for photosynthesis, but less than 40 per cent of the nitrogen in commercial fertiliser makes it to the plant.

After a plant has been fertilised, there is another problem: runoff. Fertiliser washed away by rain winds up in streams, rivers, bays and lakes, feeding algae that can grow out of control, blocking sunlight and killing plant and animal life below.

However, there is another abundant source of nitrogen all around us, researchers said.

The Earth’s atmosphere is about 78 percent nitrogen, and the Pakrasi lab engineered a bacterium that can make use of that atmospheric gas — a process known as “fixing” nitrogen — in a significant step towards engineering plants that can do the same.

Crops that can make use of nitrogen from the air will be most effective for subsistence farmers — about 800 million people worldwide, according to the World Bank — raising yields on a scale that is beneficial to a family or a town and freeing up time that was once spent manually spreading fertiliser, researchers said.

124 thoughts on “Plants may soon produce their own fertilisers

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