Fixing Nitrogen

Jul 29 2013, 05:03 IST
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SummaryA new technique allowing plants to use free Nitrogen has major implications for fertilizer use

India, despite traversing the road to development, remains an overwhelmingly agrarian country. While agriculture’s share in GDP has been falling over the recent years, the sector remains the main source of employment for around 60% of the population. The impact of the Green Revolution of the 1960-70s in India was to increase agricultural productivity, but at a cost—the increased use of chemical fertilizers had a long-term detrimental impact on soil health. This impact is now being felt on agricultural productivity in states like Punjab and Tamil Nadu, where soil salinity and acidity has increased significantly. Of the nutrients in fertilizers, Nitrogen is used in the largest amounts by far. According to the department of agriculture, Punjab government, Nitrogen accounted for 1.3 MT of the 1.8 MT of fertilizers consumed by the state in 2009-10. This is where research done by the Professor Edward Cocking of the University of Nottingham comes in. Cocking has devised a unique method for plants to harvest free Nitrogen from the air, something they can’t do in nature.

Called N-Fix, the new technology may not face the ‘genetically engineered’ stigma as it creates a natural symbiotic relationship between the plant and a naturally-occurring nitrogen-fixing bacterium that converts atmospheric nitrogen into forms the plant can use. No DNA is tampered with—the seed is simply coated with the bacteria, and the two do the rest. The technique is not yet commercialized, but when it is, it could completely alter agricultural dependence on fertilizers.

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