Reducing Nitrogen Use: Helping non-legumes think like legumes

Reducing Nitrogen Use

Can non-legumes work like legumes?

Nitrogen has certainly been on our minds lately here at beginningfarmers.org. Earlier this month we reported on the trouble with high nitrate levels in waterways in the Midwest. And back in August, we reported on a novel way for plants to fix nitrogen that’s currently in the research pipeline. Today we share news from University of Missouri, where a team of researchers have made a discovery that may help crops use less nitrogen. The research is rather preliminary, certainly not ready for implementation by farmers, but interesting nevertheless. Excerpt from Science Daily: Gary Stacey, an investigator in the MU Bond Life Sciences Center and professor of plant sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, found that crops, such as corn, are "confused" when confronted with an invasive, but beneficial, bacteria known as rhizobia bacteria. "The problem is that corn, tomatoes and other crops have a different response and don't support an intimate interaction with the rhizobia, thus making farmers apply larger amounts of nitrogen than might otherwise be necessary," Stacey said. "Scientists have known about this beneficial relationship since 1888, but it only exists in legume crops, like soybeans and alfalfa. We're working to transfer this trait to other plants like corn, wheat or rice, which we believe is possible since these other plants recognize the bacteria. It's a good first step." When legumes like soybeans sense a signal from the bacteria, they create nodules where the bacteria gather and produce atmospheric nitrogen that the plants can then use to stimulate their growth. This reaction doesn't happen in other plants. "The important finding was that these other plants didn't just ignore the rhizobia bacteria," Stacey said. "They recognized it, but just activated a different mechanism. Our next step is to determine how we can make the plants understand that this is a beneficial relationship and get them to activate a different mechanism that will produce the nodules that attract the bacteria instead of trying to fight them."

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