New technology to help plants fix nitrogen from air

Researchers at the University of Nottingham have developed a new technology that enables crops to absorb nitrogen directly from the air, thereby helping to avoid the use of costly and environmentally damaging fertilisers.

The University of Nottingham  

Nitrogen is the largest component of air, but most plants do not have the ability to absorb it directly – they depend on nitrogen in the soil.
Nitrogen fixation, the process by which nitrogen is converted to ammonia, is vital for plants to survive and grow. However, only legumes like peas, beans and lentils have the capacity to absorb nitrogen by using special bacteria.

Now, researchers at the University of Nottingham's Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation have developed a unique method of putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots.

In a ground-breaking development, Professor Edward Cocking, director of the University of Nottingham's Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation has found that a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar-cane could intracellularly colonise all major crop plants.

This could potentially provide every cell in the plant with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen and open up the possibility of meeting all of the nitrogen needs of crops the world over directly from the atmosphere.

The new technology, called N-Fix, does not have the harmful effects of genetic modification or bio-engineering as it involves only naturally occurring nitrogen fixing bacteria which takes up and uses nitrogen from the air.

The bacteria is applied to the cells of plants (intra-cellular) via the seed, so as to provide every cell in the plant with the ability to fix nitrogen.

Seeds are coated with these bacteria in order to create a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship and naturally produce nitrogen.

Nottingham University has licensed the N-Fix technology to Azotic Technologies Ltd for further development and commercialisation of technology globally for all crop species.

Azotic is now working on field trials to prove its efficacy. The company would then seek regulatory approvals for N-Fix initially in the UK, Europe, the US, Canada and Brazil, with other countries following.

The N-Fix technology is expected to be commercially available within the next two to three years.