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Biotech Science

Nitrogen Fixing Bacteria That Can Colonize Most Plants Discovered 187

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the watch-out-for-miracle-gro-assassins dept.
Zothecula writes "Synthetic crop fertilizers are a huge source of pollution. This is particularly true when they're washed from fields (or leach out of them) and enter our waterways. Unfortunately, most commercial crops need the fertilizer, because it provides the nitrogen that they require to survive. Now, however, a scientist at the University of Nottingham has developed what he claims is an environmentally-friendly process, that allows virtually any type of plant to obtain naturally-occurring nitrogen directly from the atmosphere." The process involves injecting a bacteria that colonizes the plant and fixes atmospheric nitrogen in exchange for a bit of sugar, similar to soybeans. Only this bacteria will readily colonize most any plant.
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Nitrogen Fixing Bacteria That Can Colonize Most Plants Discovered

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  • by slick7 (1703596)
    Monsanto or DuPont.
  • by drwho (4190) on Monday July 29, 2013 @09:58PM (#44419181) Homepage Journal

    Animals are now obsolete. The plants can kill us off now, watch our for your cucumbers and geraniums.

    • The plants can kill us off now, watch our for your cucumbers and geraniums.

      It's the triffids you really need to be careful of.

    • by Lotana (842533)

      Yes. Humanity is a way for wheat to make more of itself. Why without those bipedal, hairless apes to clear nice, fertile areas of land it would just go the way of the Dodo.

    • by jabuzz (182671)

      My 'O' level biology teach claimed that many years ago. Looked a good argument right up until I pointed out that the geraniums in the labs that he claimed required no animals would be the last geraniums in the world if all the animals died tomorrow. Hint they need insects to pollinate and reproduce.

  • With a bacteria that can infect plants and cause them to suck nitrogen out of the air... let out of control on a large scale, this may affect the world in a drastic way, much like how the first oxygen producing microbes first appeared on earth.

    • Re:Green apocalypse (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 29, 2013 @10:18PM (#44419297)

      Hardly -- you're overestimating the role of land plants in the ecosystem. Most nitrogen fixation is done by cyanobacteria in the oceans.

      Also, nitrogen fixation hasn't led to a depletion of nitrogen in the atmosphere, because there are whole families of denitrifying bacteria that make a living reducing nitrate back to N2 (a process which is much easier than going the other way).

    • Re:Green apocalypse (Score:5, Informative)

      by ShieldW0lf (601553) on Tuesday July 30, 2013 @01:06AM (#44420075) Journal

      This is a key part of permaculture, using plants that establish such relationships to build soil mass. Members of the legume family, peas and beans, already do this. So do trees like Russian Olive. These plants are capable of demonstrating "weedy" like behavior in that they can land in places that have nothing, establish a toe hold and grow and build soil as they die over generations. So, if you're an environmentalist who is horrified that "icky algae" is being displaced by something new, you might hate these types of plants, but really, they are pioneering plants that build fertility. I spent a lot of time researching what types of plants with these characteristics would grow in my local area because I'm interested in building a "Food Forest". Look up some of Geoff Lawton's videos on the subject, it's fascinating stuff.

      The idea that something like this is a threat is kind of laughable. It would be an incredible boon. People are already purchasing bacteria and rubbing it into their seeds to give them a good start, but the bacteria only form the necessary symbiotic relationship on a small selection of plants.

      I'll be sharing this with some of the folks at the local community farm I'm involved with who know more about the subject than I and see what they make of it, that's for sure...

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 29, 2013 @10:01PM (#44419205)

    Massive let down when I realized it wasn't a breakthrough in terraforming! :((((

    • by Urza9814 (883915)

      I was just gonna say the same thing! Also the headline says 'discovered', the summary says 'developed'...I thought this was possible 'Earth life was seeded from another planet!' stuff. I mean why else say 'colonize most planets' instead of 'extremophile' or something? Such a letdown!

    • I don't know about that. A plant that can pull fertilizer from the air has to have some sort of value in teraforming even if it wasn't addressed here.
  • by OhANameWhatName (2688401) on Monday July 29, 2013 @10:04PM (#44419223)
    Seriously? What's wrong with using nitrogen fixing plants to fill the soil with nitrogen? Yeah .. it's much more fun to engineer your own plant effects but it can have unknown side effects. If you're going to try to get rid of artificial fertilizers, shouldn't you be ensuring that your solution is sustainable? Creating and distributing large quantities of bacteria with unknown long term effects is not a known quantity and hence .. is not a sustainable solution.

    May as well keep spraying artificial fertilizers, at least we know how that degrades the soil.
    • What could go wrong is massive dead zones [sciencedaily.com] from fertilizer use. This doesn't have to be perfect, just better. Biological agriculture is the future.

      • by Doubting Sapien (2448658) on Monday July 29, 2013 @11:03PM (#44419539)
        I think you guys are misunderstanding what is being accomplished here. Using nitrogen fixing bacteria instead of artificial fertilizer means you *DON'T* have excess nitrates leaching out into the environment. The bacteria acts locally - usually right at the roots of the plant where it has colonized in return for being fed with sugars by the host. It is a truly balanced symbiotic relationship that is self-regulating.
        • That's exactly what I was getting at. There are already problems with fertilizer use. New ways of utilizing nitrogen fixing bacteria could provide a superior alternative, or at least cut the need for fertilizers.

          • by icebike (68054) on Tuesday July 30, 2013 @12:02AM (#44419821)

            Exactly.

            Because its not the nitrogen fixing that is the problem, its all the other side effects of artificial fertilization that we could avoid.
            As it is, some crop land gets planted in clover or alfalfa once in a while to fix nitrogen in the soil.

            By the way Alfalfa [wikipedia.org] already fixes nitrogen with the help of a bacteria:

            Like other legumes, its root nodules contain bacteria, Sinorhizobium meliloti, with the ability to fix nitrogen, producing a high-protein feed regardless of available nitrogen in the soil.[17] Its nitrogen-fixing ability (which increases soil nitrogen) and its use as an animal feed greatly improve agricultural efficiency.

            So this discovery is actually nothing new, just a more versatile strain of bacteria.

            • by afidel (530433)

              Around here Soybeans are used much more than Alfalfa, but according to this [usda.gov] paper they should be doing corn soybean and alfalfa in rotation, it returns $245 per acre on average versus $95 per acre for just corn/soybean.

        • by gagol (583737)
          If I had mod points... well you would have +3 insightful by now.
        • by lxs (131946)

          But what if the bacteria act locally on every single stalk of grain produced? The thing about nitrogen fixing bacteria in the wild is that they don't accompany every single plant in a field.

          I think that there is a good chance that this will be an improvement over chemical fertilizers and welcome more resarch in this area, but don't automatically assume that it's safe just because it's natural.

    • by khallow (566160)
      There's one obvious way to find out. Try it and see what happens.
      • by ThatsLoseNotLoose (719462) on Monday July 29, 2013 @11:40PM (#44419701)

        I'm sure you're joking.

        But just in case you're not, read the terrifying account of Klebsiella planticola [mst.edu].

        Had they just released it to see what would happen, we might all be starving to death right now.

        • by khallow (566160)
          Ok, so what's supposed to be terrifying about it? A parasite that promptly kills its food source and has no notable survival or propagation advantage is supposed to be bad why?

          Bacteria are naturally genetically modified organisms due to their routine ability to swap genetic material with complete different bacteria species. If it were that easy and advantageous to kill most plants on Earth, some bacteria would have figured it out by now.
    • by epine (68316)

      Creating and distributing large quantities of bacteria with unknown long term effects is not a known quantity and hence .. is not a sustainable solution.

      You left out a step in the middle. It's called a MOOC. That's where you learn things you didn't used to know. Everything one doesn't understand has unknown long term effects and hence is unsustainable.

    • by sFurbo (1361249)

      Seriously? What's wrong with using nitrogen fixing plants to fill the soil with nitrogen?

      Clover coil sickness, for one thing.
      Clover disease if you feed to much of it to your livestock.
      Inefficient use of land leading to more land needed to feed a given population.

      Not that it is a no-go, but it is not a panacea either.

    • by DrSkwid (118965)

      How do you know it's not sustainable ?

      Not knowing the future has nothing to do with sustainable agriculture.

    • by dywolf (2673597)

      because fixing nitrogen into soil via crop plants is more productive than fixing it via non-crop plants and having to wait a year.

  • Plants need phosphorous almost as much as they need nitrogen. Currently, we're using mined sources of phosphorous as fertilizer--and there is a finite supply of really good phosphorous sources.

    Potassium (the third major plant nutrient) we can extract from seawater without any problems, but the seawater concentration of phosphorous is much lower.

    So what do we do about phosphorous?

    --PeterM

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Well we can start by getting rid of cemetaries and graveyards, and stop cremating people. Definitely stop embalming them. Dead animal bodies are an excellent source of phosphorus as well as many other fertilizers, and lots of people die every single day.

      • by bosef1 (208943)

        Wasn't that mentioned in "Brave New World". Didn't they have special filters on the chimneys at the crematoria for capturing the phosphorous and calcium for fertilizer?

        • by gagol (583737)
          I remember a lot from the book and movie, but not that detail. Sound more like a F451 thing than BNW... I may well be wrong though.
          • by telchine (719345)

            Sound more like a F451 thing than BNW... I may well be wrong though

            I'm in the middle of reading it and the OP is right, they removed the phosphorus from cremated bodies for fertilizer in Brave New World.

            I remember a lot from the book and movie, but not that detail.

            Maybe the Ministry of Truth got to your copy and put that part of the book in a memory hole?

        • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Tuesday July 30, 2013 @01:03AM (#44420063)

          I remember reading "Life's Bottleneck" by Issac Asimov. He calculates that if life expands and uses the elements in the entire crust of the earth, the phosphorus will be exhausted first, before carbon, nitrogen, or even trace elements like iodine and selenium. Phosphorus is life's bottleneck.

          But there is a big difference between fertilizing with phosphorus and nitrogen. You only need to add phosphorus once, and then only enough annually to replace what is taken out with the crop, which is usually not much. It is a permanent addition to the soil. But the nitrogen is consumed and returned to the atmosphere as the plants grow and then decay. You need to replenish it every year, either with fertilizer or legumes.

      • Well we can start by getting rid of cemetaries and graveyards, and stop cremating people.

        Um... apropos of nothing, how does cremation affect the phosphorus content?

      • by timeOday (582209)
        It's rather early to worry about recycling humans. The US produces 92 billion lbs of meat per year [meatami.com], which is 294 lbs for every American every year, which means you (on average) will be responsible for the production of over 100 times your body weight in animals throughout your life. And for that matter you excrete far more phosphorous during your life than you contain when you die. Animal agriculture manure is a primary source of nitrogen and phosphorus to surface and groundwater. [epa.gov]

        The fact is we have s

    • by Joce640k (829181)

      So what do we do about phosphorous?

      Start looking for a solution...?

      Are you seriously suggesting we don't do this because it only removes one of the three ingredients of artificial fertilizer?

    • Make use of the phosphorous that is already present in deeper soils. Plant dynamic accumulators that cycle nutrients such as phosphorous from their roots to their surface as companion plants to your crops.
      Check out the dynamic accumulator list in the following:
      http://www.nsfarming.com/Media/KOURICK_Soil_Indicators_86.pdf [nsfarming.com]

      Another option: include bird-attracting plants or feeders. Their manure is rich in many nutrients, including phosphorous.

    • by delt0r (999393)
      Don't throw away shit. Its got what plants crave.
  • If no plant needs nitrogen fertilizer, does this mean that we can stop producing ammonium nitrate and other nitrates in huge quantities, many of which can be used to make explosives?

    Does this mean we could realistically reduce the availability of now-common bomb-making materials?

    --PeterM

    • by iggymanz (596061)

      No, that's a silly reason to ban anything, because most anything can be used to make an explosive quite easily and trivially. Look around, your cotton or hemp or silk or synthentic clothing; plastics; wood products; metals like iron, aluminum, copper, zinc, lead, graphite; the various basic chemicals like soap, window wash, drain opener; the acidic things like car battery acid, vinegar, muriatic acid; the "chlorine" powder for your swimming pool; hydrocarbons from paraffin to coal to liquid fuels and h

      • Yes, but can you buy all of that stuff in really large quantities without making people suspicious? And I doubt any of them are really as simple+effective+safe as your nitrogen-based explosives.

        --PM

        • by iggymanz (596061)

          what makes you think anything needs to be bought? you missed the point totally. reagents can't be banned because they're everywhere in abundant supply. for example, you mentioned the nitrogen-based explosives. The road to those can start with a barrel of piss

    • by raymorris (2726007) on Tuesday July 30, 2013 @01:03AM (#44420061)
      Currently about three billion pounds of KNO3 are made each year. Suppose the researcher's hopes come true and that is cut in half. That would mean only 1,500,000,000 pounds would be on the market each year. Of course, it's not just used for fertilizer, there are many other uses. But if you did replace all those other uses, there would only be enough KNO3 to make ten million bombs per year. Of course, horse stables are full of it, too - stale urine is potassium nitrate.

      You know why you can't take liquids on airplanes? Hydrogen peroxide and nail polish remover. If you mix the two correctly, you get a VERY powerful explosive . (If you mix them incorrectly you get dead. Don't try it. It's a great explosive for SUICIDE bombers.)

      Another frequently used and powerful explosive is aluminium powder. Yep, ground up tinfoil. Don't try that at home either, it might blow up while you're grinding it. Adding Parlon can help. Parlon is also known as Saran Wrap.

      Grind up ping pong balls, that modern gunpowder, called smokeless powder.

      So you see, to make any progress by banning stuff you would need to ban half the stuff in the grocery store. Oh, and don't forget to ban livestock, so everyone would have to be vegetarian. ( remember, where animals piss, potassium nitrate crystallizes.)
  • Now all we need is a bazillion immigrant labourers to run around the fields with syringes injecting plants.

    Let me know if they ever figure out how to apply this bacteria to seed before planting or spraying after sprouting. Then they'll have something worth talking about.

    • by wierd_w (1375923)

      Insects.

      Specifically, you release sap sucking insects that like to stuff their sharp little noses deep into the tissues of green plants already, such as aphids.

      Cross the nitrogen fixating bacteria with wolbachia parasite, so that it can live in both hosts, and watch the plants take over.

    • by Jayfar (630313) on Monday July 29, 2013 @10:44PM (#44419441)

      Let me know if they ever figure out how to apply this bacteria to seed before planting or spraying after sprouting. Then they'll have something worth talking about.

      Er, that's exactly what is disussed in TFA:

      "The process that Cocking developed, based on his discovery, is known as N-Fix. It involves covering seeds in a non-toxic coating that contains the bacterium. As a seed sprouts and the plant grows, the bacterium enters through its roots, and ultimately ends up in every cell of the plant. This means that every one of those cells is capable of fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere – just like sugarcane does."

  • by Guppy (12314) on Monday July 29, 2013 @10:25PM (#44419335)

    If the claims are true (60% of a plant's nitrogen requirements, adaptable to most crops), this is absolutely huge. All the research on how legumes manage their symbiotic organisms seemed to point to a long, hard slog in adapting nitrogen fixation to other crops, and now here it is from a naturally occurring organism.

    But before I break out the champagne, I'm going to ask whereisthefuckingpaper?

  • If the ground gets all full of nitrogen, won't we just sink into it?

    • What? Is this a troll comment?

      Okay, key point: the form of Nitrogen that we're talking about generating here is not the gaseous sort. It's "fixed" nitrogen which I believe is mostly in the form of ammonia. Urea, commonly found in various animal feces, is also a convenient source widely used by the agricultural industry. It is also generated by bacteria but under different circumstances. (In your butt and/or intestines depending on how childish you want to be...)

      Nitrogen is also the most abundant component o

  • by simonbp (412489) on Monday July 29, 2013 @11:11PM (#44419557) Homepage

    There are only four known objects with nitrogen atmospheres: Earth (already terraformed by microbes), Titan (surface temperature -220 C), Triton and Pluto (surface pressure ~10 microbars). The only two terraforming targets are Mars and (at a stretch) Venus, both of which have almost zero nitrogen in their atmospheres.

    This is either a critical research failure, or hyping up a somewhat boring discovery to a more exciting one, or both.

    • by black3d (1648913)

      While I too read "planets" at first glance after the context of "colonize", this is about plants, not planets.

    • by Amouth (879122)

      According to my sig, you'd get a gold metal. :)

  • The bacteria gets its energy from sugar in the plant. How much sugar? How much does it decrease the plant's yield.

  • Just what we need zombie plants controlled by symbiotic bacteria like in I Am Legend.
  • ...that we have an interest in the plant?

  • by Billy the Mountain (225541) on Tuesday July 30, 2013 @12:48AM (#44420007) Journal
    Ammonia is the second only to petrochemical production and 83% goes to fertilizer. If the bacteria can replace most requirements for nitrogen fertilizer this will drastically reduce reliance on energy for agriculture, especially the reducing natural gas that is converted to hydrogen to make Ammonia
  • Okay, I'll be the first to ask:

    How is the dispersion of these bacteria controlled? Will the bacteria spread to other plants, such as weeds? Will they be spread by air-borne reproductive means? (Not that food crops use dandelions tufts, but you know what I mean - pollen or seeds blown around by the wind.)

    Will these be the 3-d equivalent of Bolivian Tree Lizards [youtube.com]?

    I'm all for scientific progress and not a big fan of Jeremy Rifkin [wikipedia.org], but he serves an important purpose by voicing concerns and making people stop to

  • So when do we start terraforming?

  • Now I'm all disappointed and stuff.

  • by Michael Woodhams (112247) on Tuesday July 30, 2013 @02:29AM (#44420381) Journal

    According to the article, the bacteria will live within the plant's cells. This is certainly possible (such endosymbiosis was the origin of mitochondria and chloroplasts) but I do wonder whether it is really the case here, or if the reporter made an error.

    If it does work as well as claimed (I'm always a bit skeptical about these 'amazing new tech' claims) then expect a whole lot of effort to go into breeding new plant varieties that get the most out of their new symbiont.

  • It is BACTERIA that fixes nitrogen.
    NOT NITROGEN that fixes bacteria.

    Are there any editors around?

  • by g1powermac (812562) on Tuesday July 30, 2013 @07:12AM (#44421401)
    I've read the article and have researched this before for my own farm. There are products [xtreme-gardening.com] already on the market that seem to do what the article talks about so I'm not really sure that this is anything new. However, if they are using Azotobacter bacteria, I'm curios how they are making it symbiotic as it generally isn't.
  • We don't need to develop this in a lab. It is already being done in many plants and used as a strategy for sustainable soil development.

    Here's how:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TMQ8eSm92xQ [youtube.com]

  • This is great news! Until the bacteria evolve to colonize humans!

    I, for one, welcome our new nitrogen fixing overlords.

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