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US, UK to Provide $12M for Nitrogen-Fixing Bacteria and Crop Studies

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The US and UK governments have provided over $12 million to fund four collaborative research programs that will use synthetic biology and genetics approaches to develop new methods to enable plants to "fix" their own nitrogen, which could reduce the need for artificial fertilizers and boost crop yields.

The National Science Foundation and the UK's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council will support three projects that will involve teams of UK and US collaborators, as well as one group involving researchers from two universities in the US.

Artificial fertilizers are expensive, use large amounts of fossil fuel, and create environmental problems by running off of farmlands and into fresh waters and coastal zones, but plants require nitrogen and most farms meet this demand by using industrial, nitrogen-rich fertilizers. There is plenty of safe nitrogen in the atmosphere, NSF said, but it is largely unusable to plants, which need to convert it into a usable form, or "fix" it.

One of the groups of researchers at Montana State University; the University of Wisconsin, Madison; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Samuel Roberts Nobel Foundation; and the John Innes Centre plan to use a $5.1 million award to engineer a synthetic symbiotic relationship between plants and bacteria that will provide crops with oxygen.

Nature has provided the framework, as some plants already have symbiotic relationships with bacteria in their root nodules that convert nitrogen from the air into useful nitrogen.

This team plans to genetically alter a nitrogen-fixing bacteria and a grass species to ensure "a lock and key interaction between plant and microbe," which could maximize the nitrogen delivered to the plant, NSF said. The bacteria will be genetically altered to respond to the plant's signals and nutritional needs to control nitrogen production.

"This research could pave the way for a 'Green Revolution' that will increase crop yields for resource-poor farmers and decrease the use and environmental impact of industrial fertilizers by wealthier farmers," Philip Poole from England's John Innes Centre, said in a statement.

A US-based team at Washington University and Pennsylvania State University will use a $3.8 million grant to develop design principles that will enable a unicellular cyanobacterium, a blue-green algae, to establish nitrogen-fixing abilities. They also plan to engineer plant cells to fix atmospheric nitrogen into usable compounds.

Partners at the Carnegie Institution of Washington; Penn State University; MIT; the University of Glasgow; and Imperial College London have received a $1.9 million award to try to build a synthetic module that could operate inside of a cell to perform nitrogen fixing for plants. To do this, the investigators will be required to transfer genes that are responsible for nitrogen fixation and for alterations to cellular processes in some cyanobacteria into a new host bacterial chassis.

"The goal is to use these to build a novel synthetic nitrogen-fixing unit that can be transferred to other hosts and ultimately give plants new functionality. It could mean the crops of the future can make use of the nitrogen around us without needing fertilizers," said the Carnegie Institution's Devaki Bhaya.

Another group at Michigan State University and Imperial College London were awarded $1.9 million to seek out a rare bacterium discovered in a German charcoal pit in the 1990s that may be used to enable plants to fix their own nitrogen.

They hope to find this strain and other nitrogen-fixing strains and study their genetics and biochemistry with the aim of finding ways to transfer oxygen-tolerant nitrogenase, which can fix nitrogen into a biologically useful form, into plants.

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