Fertilizers used for growing crops can be expensive and produce negative environmental impacts. But the results of a study published in Nature Microbiology could open the door to reducing fertilizer usage by increasing biological nitrogen fixation.

Study co-author John Peters, director of Washington State University’s Institute of Biological Chemistry, uses legumes as a model to investigate how metabolic processes in bacteria create and use energy. He and his colleagues are trying to replicate the symbiotic relationship that exists between crops such as chickpeas and lentils and the bacteria growing within their root tissues. The bacteria take nitrogen from the air and convert it to ammonia, a natural fertilizer that the legume crops use as energy to grow.

The process works through a series of signals exchanged between legumes and microbes, in which chemicals given off by the crops let the microbes know that the legume plants need fixed oxygen. The microbes also release signals letting the plants know they need carbon.

The researchers are working to produce a synthetic version of the exchange and have identified and transferred a group of genes into plant-colonizing bacteria that enable nitrogen fixation. The team’s goal is to add the gene groups into other bacteria. If successful, the process could reduce the need for human-made fertilizers in the production of wheat, soybeans, and corn, as well as other food crops.

“This project is aimed at increasing food production and helping feed the world,” said Peters in a press release. “Transforming food production to work without nitrogen-based fertilizers could be a huge development in underdeveloped countries. Adding these microbes would be like pouring kombucha on roots.”

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