February 13, 2021. By Kolemann Lutz
After adding nitrogen fixing bacteria as a seed coating to crop root cells, researchers discovered that plants could naturally consume nitrogen from the air.
A vital component for crop growth, nitrogen fixation is when molecular nitrogen (N2) in the air is converted into ammonia (NH4) or related nitrogenous compounds by either a natural or an industrial means.
Most soil-based bacteria known as diazotrophs fix atmospheric nitrogen gas into ammonia during the night after photosynthesis during the day. The vast majority of crops obtain nitrogen from these N2-fixing microbes in the soil, which means greater dependence on fertilisers that contain plant nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
The nutrients and chemicals, primarily nitrogen in the form of NH4 and nitrate (NO3-), in fertilisers have been contaminating rivers, lakes, sewage, and leaching into drinking water wells for almost a century.
For Mars, minimal soil in hydroponic gardens might allow for little room or nitrogen-fixation challenges for soil bacteria and crops to receive enough NH4 and NO3 nutrients to help sustain early settlers.
The major breakthrough originated in 2013 when Professor Edward Cocking, a leading world expert on nitrogen and plant science at the University of Nottingham, found a strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar-cane called Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus (Gd) that can be infused into major crop plants and enable each plant cell to fix up to 50% of its nitrogen requirement from the air. Since 2010, the Cocking and his team have conducted extensive research and experiments demonstrating proof of principle both inside and outside of the laboratory.
The technology known as N-Fix is a nitrogen seed coating that helps plants naturally obtain 60% of nitrogen requirement without genetic modification or bioengineering to establish a mutually beneficial symbiosis. The coating stimulates a plant’s nitrogen uptake and results in faster seedling growth, healthier plants and larger yields at significant savings over fertilisers.
Expanding on 20 years of research, the N-Fix patented technology has been licensed by The University of Nottingham to Azotic Technologies Ltd to develop and commercialise N-Fix for all crop species. Azotic is the only company offering an intracellular strain of this bacteria in non-legumes, or not a part of the plant legume family, which includes beans, peas, lentils, and peanuts.
Peter Blezard, CEO of Azotic Technologies mentions, "agriculture has to change and N-Fix can make a real and positive contribution to that change. It has enormous potential to help feed more people in many of the poorer parts of the world, while at the same time, dramatically reducing the amount of synthetic nitrogen produced in the world."
“Earth needs to unhook itself from its ever increasing reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers produced from fossil fuels with its high economic costs, its pollution of the environment and its high energy costs.”
The emergent field of agriculture of coating seeds with bacteria and genes might hold great potential toward sustaining plant life in nutrient deprived environments and alternative atmospheres on bodies in the Solar system and even exoplanets.
Considering the atmosphere of Mars and Venus is estimated to hold 3% and 3.5% nitrogen respectively, nitrogen generator units designed for each celestial body would compress atmospheric air and filter out carbon dioxide to produce nitrogen gas in-situ to sustain vital life support for crops and humans.
As nitrogen seed coating can be applied to all crops, there is a substantial global market on Earth in the $2.4 trillion agriculture industry with a common belief that similar nitrogen-fixing bacteria can be utilised on other celestial bodies such as the Moon, Mars, and Venus.