Plant Cuttings

A nod in the right direction?

Image: Scene from a mural in the tomb of Sennedjem, Egypt.
Image: Scene from a mural in the tomb of Sennedjem, Egypt.

Congratulations are in order to the John Innes Centre (Norwich, UK) for its recent award of nearly US$10m ‘to test the feasibility of developing cereal crops capable of fixing nitrogen as an environmentally-sustainable approach for small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to increase maize yields’. The funding – curiously, for 5 years and 1 month – from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) should allow Giles Oldroyd and his team to further their attempts to encourage cereals to develop a mutually beneficial symbiosis with nitrogen-fixing bacteria, as found within root nodules of legumes. And this notion is not as science-fiction fanciful as you might think because the pathway that facilitates development of mycorrhiza between flowering plants and fungi is similar to that involved in nodule development. Whilst cereals presently form mycorrhiza they don’t yet have N-fixing nodules, but a little molecular magic may be all the encouragement that’s needed to kick-start that ancient ‘dormant’ ability. But why go to such trouble when you could just add artificial fertiliser to reduce the yield gap (‘the gap between average and potential yields‘)? Because such fertilisers are not only too costly for farmers in that region (and elsewhere!), they are also environmentally expensive – apparently, making and applying nitrogen fertilisers contributes half the carbon footprint of agriculture and causes environmental pollution. Although Team Oldroyd will focus upon maize – the most important staple crop for small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa – to speed the work along they will also exploit Setaria viridis, which has a smaller genome and shorter life cycle. And as an added bonus, results of this work should also be applicable to other major cereals such as wheat, barley and rice. This work will take place in tandem with another BMGF-co-funded initiative, N2Africa, a large-scale, science research project ‘focused on putting N-fixation to work for smallholder farmers growing legume crops in Africa’. So, it looks like we can now answer the question posed by Myriam Charpentier and Giles Oldroyd, ‘How close are we to nitrogen-fixing cereals?’ – US$9,872,613 closer! Let us hope that the investment pays off as we follow the path towards Prabhu Pingali’s second Green Revolution (GR2.0), and trust that needful nations can afford the solution that is reached. However, one is mindful that to date adoption of ‘agbiotech’ solutions in sub-Saharan Africa has been low; regardless of how environmentally sympathetic the science may be, hearts and minds will need to be won over too.


  1. We’ve been waiting an awfully long time for nitrogen-fixing cereals, at least since the earliest days of GM and Don Grierson’s extravagant claims. Five years and a month later, I predict we’ll be no closer. What we really need, in my view, is more research into the details of fixation in rhizobium to improve the overall performance of legumes in adding N to the soil. But of course that’s so mundane. Take a look at Ford Denison’s Darwinian Agriculture for some insights on this topic.

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