What do plants need to grow? Soil, water, sunlight. But there’s something else that’s just as important: nitrogen. Most plants are only able to access nitrogen through the soil, so, we supply them with synthetic nitrogen fertilizers to ensure a large yield. That’s all well and good for a single garden, or even a few hundred farms. But in case you haven’t noticed, the global agricultural system is a wee bit bigger than that.

With nearly every country in the world dumping tons of fertilizer on its crops, it’s no wonder we’ve started to see negative effects like ocean dead spots and toxic algae blooms. In an effort to combat this problem without loss of yield, researchers at the University of Nottingham are working on a technology that could enable crops to take nitrogen from the air, instead of the soil.

crops growing in mexico
Image via wonderlane/Flickr

The process of harvesting nitrogen from the air isn’t unheard of in the plant world. Legumes (such as peas, beans and lentils) already have this ability. Professor Edward Cocking, Director of The University of Nottingham’s Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, recently discovered a nitrogen-fixing bacteria present in sugar cane that could be used to impart this ability to other crops as well. He calls it N-Fix.

“N-Fix is neither genetic modification nor bio-engineering. It is a naturally occurring nitrogen fixing bacteria which takes up and uses nitrogen from the air,” explains a press release. “Applied to the cells of plants (intra-cellular) via the seed, it provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix nitrogen. Plant seeds are coated with these bacteria in order to create a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship and naturally produce nitrogen.”

According to Professor Cocking, the technology could have significant implications for food security, not to mention the health of our streams, rivers, and oceans. “The world 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,” said Cocking in the same release.

The N-Fix technology has been licensed by The University of Nottingham to Azotic Technologies Ltd to develop and commercialise N-Fix globally. Field trials are now in progress, to be followed a request for regulatory approval in the UK, Europe, USA, Canada and Brazil.

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