Skip to main content

Anthropocene Mag: A wild grass gene endows wheat with the power to intercept fertilizer pollution

Applied to different cultivars, this discovery has the potential to not only slash nitrate pollution, but also agricultural greenhouse gases

Leymus racemosus

This piece by Emma Bryce was originally published by the Anthropocene Magazine: Read the full story here.

Scientists have developed wheat plants that can rein in the nitrogen pollution that leaches from chemical fertilizers, potentially stopping tons of greenhouses gases from entering the atmosphere each year.

The wheat plants, which incorporate a genetic trait from a type of wild grass, ooze compounds from their roots into the soil, which disrupt the enzyme activity of soil microbes. This slows the capacity of these microorganisms to break down fertilizer ingredients and release the resulting pollution into surrounding ecosystems. 

This harmful process is called nitrification, and it’s a key reason why fertilizers have such an impact on our planet. Farmers apply fertilizers because they contain ammonia, which helps plants grow. But soil microbes intercept this process, by oxidizing the ammonia to form nitrate, an ingredients that can end up running from soil into waterways, causing dead zones in the ocean, and even polluting drinking water for humans. This process also reduces the availability of readily-usable ammonia for the plants — which sometimes leads to excessive application of fertilizers on farms to compensate for the loss.

What’s more, in the process of oxidizing, the microbes release nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas — 300 times as powerful as CO2 — as a byproduct. This adds significantly to agriculture’s footprint. 

Yet, modern agriculture need fertilizers to grow food, and that’s true of wheat in particular, which guzzles up to one-fifth of globally-available chemical fertilizer every year. Since wheat is a staple for millions of people worldwide, its polluting impact is a bind we need to find our way out of. Now, the team of international researchers on the new study think they may have found one solution. Continue reading…

Related tags