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What if crops could be coaxed into making their own fertilizer?

Researchers have managed to engineer plants that can ‘talk’ to nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots—paving the way for the development of crops that could live off far less fertilizer, and reduce agriculture’s environmental footprint, overall.

Writing in Nature Communications, the international team of researchers describe how they started by studying a type of microbe called rhizobia bacteria, which naturally fix nitrogen from the soil into a form that plants can use. In nature, most plants get nitrogen either from soil bacteria that do this work, or from plants that die and recycle their nitrogen into the soil. But under the intensive regime of industrial agriculture, the constantly-depleted soil needs to be regularly enriched in order to feed new crops—which is why we apply fertilizer, to provide essential nutrients, including nitrogen. Yet the application of synthetic fertilizer also brings pollution, and the expulsion of emissions as soil microbes transform the excess into the harmful greenhouse gas known as nitrous oxide.