Biotech Updates

Teaching Corn to Fix Its Own Nitrogen

March 5, 2010

Teaching corn plants to fix their own nitrogen can eliminate the need for fertilizer applications, which is a major cost of production and can contribute to degradation of the environment. But can corn be taught to fix its own nitrogen? University of Illinois agricultural engineer Kaustubh Bhalerao believes it may be possible through research in an emerging area of engineering called synthetic biology.

Synthetic biology is a new area of research that combines science and engineering in order to design and build or "synthesize" novel biological functions and systems. Through this new technology, many scientists believe it may be possible to control biological systems to increase food supplies, produce energy, enhance human health, protect the environment, and more.

Bhalerao's research focuses on using bacterial amplifiers. Soybean plants can fix their own nitrogen by relying on soil bacteria. They release signals that tell bacteria to colonize their roots. The bacteria then start fixing nitrogen for the plant. "Why don't we teach corn how to do this?" Bhalerao said. "This would reduce the need for the application of petroleum-based fertilizers, which has huge implications for sustainable agriculture."

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