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Agriculture Professor Ted Cocking
Image Credit: University of Nottingham

Published on August 3rd, 2013 | by James Ayre

17

Breakthrough Technology Enables Crops To Take Nitrogen From The Air — Effective Means To Replace Nitrogen Fertilizers Developed

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August 3rd, 2013 by  

A potentially “world-changing” technology has been developed by researchers at the University of Nottingham — a means of enabling any type of crop to take nitrogen from the air. In other words, an effective means of phasing out expensive and environmentally damaging nitrogen fertilizers.

As it stands now, most crops are dependent upon nitrogen fertilizers, as they are unable to “fix” their own nitrogen from the air, as some plants/crops do (legumes mostly). Legumes possess the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere thanks to the nitrogen fixing bacteria that live within them. So if plants that are able to fix their own nitrogen possess that ability as a result of bacteria, what’s stopping the development of techniques/bacteria to provide that ability to other crops? That’s the question that the researchers have now provided an answer to: Not much.

crops nitrogen fixing technology developed

Professor Ted Cocking
Image Credit: University of Nottingham

The University of Nottingham writes:

Nitrogen fixation, the process by which nitrogen is converted to ammonia, is vital for plants to survive and grow. However, only a very small number of plants, most notably legumes (such as peas, beans and lentils) have the ability to fix their own nitrogen from the air. The vast majority of plants have to obtain nitrogen from the soil, and for most crops currently being grown across the world, this also means a reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer.

Professor Edward Cocking, Director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, has developed a unique method of putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots. His major breakthrough came when he found a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar-cane which he discovered could intracellularly colonize all major crop plants. This ground-breaking development potentially provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. The implications for agriculture are enormous as this new technology can provide much of the plant’s nitrogen needs.

A leading world expert in nitrogen and plant science, Professor Cocking has long recognized that there is a critical need to reduce nitrogen pollution caused by nitrogen-based fertilizers. Nitrate pollution is a major problem, as is also the pollution of the atmosphere by ammonia and oxides of nitrogen. In addition, nitrate pollution is a health hazard and also causes oxygen-depleted “dead zones” in our waterways and oceans. A recent study estimates that that the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen pollution across Europe is £60 billion — £280 billion a year.


With regard to the new technology — which has been dubbed ‘N-Fix’ — Professor Cocking had this to say: “Helping plants to naturally obtain the nitrogen they need is a key aspect of World Food Security. The world needs to unhook itself from its ever increasing reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizers produced from fossil fuels with its high economic costs, its pollution of the environment and its high energy costs.”

To explain further, N-Fix doesn’t involve any genetic modification or bio-engineering, it’s simply a naturally occurring nitrogen-fixing bacteria that, when applied to the cells of plants (intra-cellular), via the seeds, provides every one of the plant’s cells with the ability to fix nitrogen. All that needs to be done is to coat the seeds with the bacteria.

According to the researchers, the technology works with any type of crop. And apparently there is quite a lot of field experience to back that assertion up. Over the past 10 years, “the University of Nottingham has conducted a series of extensive research programs which have established proof of principal of the technology in the laboratory, growth rooms and glasshouses.”

“The proof of concept has already been demonstrated. The uptake and fixation of nitrogen in a range of crop species has been proven to work in the laboratory and Azotic Technologies Ltd is now working on field trials in order to produce robust efficacy data. This will be followed by seeking regulatory approval for N-Fix initially in the UK, Europe, USA, Canada and Brazil, with more countries to follow.”

Current estimates are that the N-Fix technology will be made commercially available sometime within the next few years.

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About the Author

's background is predominantly in geopolitics and history, but he has an obsessive interest in pretty much everything. After an early life spent in the Imperial Free City of Dortmund, James followed the river Ruhr to Cofbuokheim, where he attended the University of Astnide. And where he also briefly considered entering the coal mining business. He currently writes for a living, on a broad variety of subjects, ranging from science, to politics, to military history, to renewable energy. You can follow his work on Google+.



  • Fayyaz

    Normal air has 20% O2, 78 % Nitrogen and rest other gases. With widespread use of Nitrogen fixers or Solar energy, the nitrogen ratio can drop and oxygen ratio will increase in heavily used areas and thus creating ” fire hazard zones ” ?

  • anti-agribiz

    seems to me if this ‘symbiotic’ relationship were good for all of the (non-legume) plants, then after hundreds or thousands of years of evolution they’d have already developed the relationship. why do ‘scientists always have to eff with the food supply? whatever happened to proper practices of husbandry? If proper crop rotation (presumably with legumes and other non N-fixing crops) didn’t put the helpful bacteria into the soil and in turn be taken up by the subsequent crops, perhaps the crop doesn’t want it or feel that it would be beneficial to it. hmm.

    • Bob_Wallace

      One has to wonder why, after hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, plants haven’t invented drip irrigation.

      Perhaps the crop doesn’t want it or feel that it would be beneficial to it. hmm.

  • Marion

    What people often overlook is the fact that when plants or their symbionts fix their own nitrogen from air, it costs a lot of photosynthetic energy. For every gram of nitrogen fixed, the plants will spend 4 grams of carbohydrates. You would still attain the highest yield of soybean or grains when you supply the nitrogen. Since plants are very bad at converting solar energy to fix nitrogen, it would be better to use solar to make nitrogen fertilizer and feed it to the plants. Conversion efficiency of plants are less than half a percent with most of the solar energy spent on evaporating the water.

    Only when people don’t have technologies and you are doing subsistence hand to mouth farming, then this ancient technique of using nitrogen fixers would be most applicable. Food production for energy foods would be far less to feed a growing population.

    • Bob_Wallace

      I assume there is research backing up your claims?

      • Marion Meads

        there is bob, it is fundamental rule in plant life, we took it up in ecology, and it so happens, my teacher’s name is also bob. I’ll spoon feed the text book as soon as i find it. the guy who taught it is very practical and is much more than a skeptic than you. The guy’s name is Bob Loomis or Robert Loomis, a professor from UC Davis.

        • Marion Meads

          here’s the latest edition of his book. It is discussed well, the computational basis and the yield of various crops using applied nitrogen versus nitrogen fixing. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8976693-crop-ecology

          Professor Ted Cocking here did not actually have any breakthrough, because the yield that he would be getting without applying nitrogen would be far less than applying nitrogen. We are talking about food and not energy. He needs to know some computational mathematics in photosynthesis and the energy balance from the sun and how the various alternatives would impact food production. If plants were to depend on nitrogen fixers, be it their own, or through symbionts, they would spend a great deal of photosynthates into nitrogen fixing. Supplying the nitrogen from an efficient energy conversion source would be key to producing more food.

          • Ronald Brakels

            It definitely takes energy to fix nitrogen, but there are advantages to having the plants do it themselves. After all, if non-nitrogen fixers had the clear advantage we’d probably all be eating a lot less beans. Advantages include less nitrogen being fixed in total, reducing nutrient pollution, and reducing the cost of inputs for farmers which is particularly important when there is a high risk of crop failure. Non-organic commercial farmers do engage in crop rotation with nitrogen fixers when they consider it worthwhile and it’s not uncommon (around here anyway) for low input costs to make the difference between planting a crop and not planting anything.

  • Bill Branham

    A leading world expert in nitrogen and plant science, Professor Cocking has long recognized that there is a critical need to reduce nitrogen pollution caused by nitrogen-based fertilizers. Nitrate pollution is a major problem, as is also the pollution of the atmosphere by ammonia and oxides of nitrogen. In addition, nitrate pollution is a health hazard and also causes oxygen-depleted “dead zones” in our waterways and oceans. A recent study estimates that that the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen pollution across Europe is £60 billion — £280 billion a year.
    Read more at http://cleantechnica.com/2013/08/03/crops-nitrogen-fixing-from-air/#8V9rQA92qiA2jeJ4.99

    • Doug

      Definitely Nitrogen pollution is an overlooked problem

  • Matt

    can you treat the field or do you have to treat the seeds. If they will live in the dirt until the next planting it would be out of this world. But even if it does requiring treating the seed. If it works it’s a farmers wet dream. This was the holy grail in the 70′s trying to move this skill from soy beans to other crops. The impact of dropping even half the nitrogen from nitrogen-based fertilizers applied to fields, would be great. Farms get much better crop returns with less money spent on fertilizers. A lot less nitrates run off! If it goes so far as remove the need to add nitrogen to most/all crops than this is one that can be called “A total game changer”.

    Go one step farther, if you can mix it with water and spray it on live plants. Think of a NGO spraying forest and meadows. Maybe do it for farmer in the Amazon so they can stay in one place instead of burning more forest.

    • Ross

      They appear to be genetically engineering the bacteria to be compatible with the plant but not to the extent that it survives without reapplication.

  • JamesWimberley

    It’s taken Professor Cocking and his institute over 10 years to get this far. Let’s hope he goes the rest of the way, and the technology isn’t killed by over-regulation or greed..

    Wikipedia article on the variety of nitrogen-fixing bacteria: it’s an archaic set of genes.

    • JamesWimberley

      Sorry, link missing: here.

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