A nod in the right direction?

Image: Scene from a mural in the tomb of Sennedjem, Egypt.

Image: Scene from a mural in the tomb of Sennedjem, Egypt.

Congratulations are in order to the John Innes Centre (Norwich, UK) for its recent award of nearly US$10m ‘to test the feas­ib­il­ity of devel­op­ing cer­eal crops cap­able of fix­ing nitro­gen as an environmentally-sustainable approach for small farm­ers in sub-Saharan Africa to increase maize yields’. The fund­ing – curi­ously, for 5 years and 1 month – from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) should allow Giles Oldroyd and his team to fur­ther their attempts to encour­age cer­eals to develop a mutu­ally bene­fi­cial sym­bi­osis with nitrogen-fixing bac­teria, as found within root nod­ules of legumes. And this notion is not as science-fiction fanci­ful as you might think because the path­way that facil­it­ates devel­op­ment of mycor­rhiza between flower­ing plants and fungi is sim­ilar to that involved in nod­ule devel­op­ment. Whilst cer­eals presently form mycor­rhiza they don’t yet have N-fixing nod­ules, but a little molecu­lar magic may be all the encour­age­ment that’s needed to kick-start that ancient ‘dormant’ abil­ity. But why go to such trouble when you could just add arti­fi­cial fer­til­iser to reduce the yield gap (‘the gap between aver­age and poten­tial yields’)? Because such fer­til­isers are not only too costly for farm­ers in that region (and else­where!), they are also envir­on­ment­ally expens­ive – appar­ently, mak­ing and apply­ing nitro­gen fer­til­isers con­trib­utes half the car­bon foot­print of agri­cul­ture and causes envir­on­mental pol­lu­tion. Although Team Oldroyd will focus upon maize – the most import­ant staple crop for small-scale farm­ers in sub-Saharan Africa – to speed the work along they will also exploit Setaria viridis, which has a smal­ler gen­ome and shorter life cycle. And as an added bonus, res­ults of this work should also be applic­able to other major cer­eals such as wheat, bar­ley and rice. This work will take place in tan­dem with another BMGF-co-funded ini­ti­at­ive, N2Africa, a large-scale, sci­ence research pro­ject ‘focused on put­ting N-fixation to work for small­holder farm­ers grow­ing legume crops in Africa’. So, it looks like we can now answer the ques­tion posed by Myriam Charpentier and Giles Oldroyd, ‘How close are we to nitrogen-fixing cer­eals?’ – US$9,872,613 closer! Let us hope that the invest­ment pays off as we fol­low the path towards Prabhu Pingali’s second Green Revolution (GR2.0), and trust that need­ful nations can afford the solu­tion that is reached. However, one is mind­ful that to date adop­tion of ‘agbi­otech’ solu­tions in sub-Saharan Africa has been low; regard­less of how envir­on­ment­ally sym­path­etic the sci­ence may be, hearts and minds will need to be won over too.

Nigel Chaffey. ORCID 0000-0002-4231-9082

Nigel is a botanist and full-time academic at Bath Spa University (Bath, near Bristol, UK). As News Editor for the Annals of Botany he contributes the monthly Plant Cuttings column to that august international botanical organ. His main goal is to inform (hopefully, in an educational, and entertaining way...) about plants and plant-people interactions.

2 Responses

  1. We’ve been wait­ing an awfully long time for nitrogen-fixing cer­eals, at least since the earli­est days of GM and Don Grierson’s extra­vag­ant claims. Five years and a month later, I pre­dict we’ll be no closer. What we really need, in my view, is more research into the details of fix­a­tion in rhizobium to improve the over­all per­form­ance of legumes in adding N to the soil. But of course that’s so mundane. Take a look at Ford Denison’s Darwinian Agriculture for some insights on this topic.

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