It may soon be possible to engineer plants that can develop their own fertilizer by using atmospheric nitrogen to create chlorophyll for photosynthesis, according to a team of Indian-origin researchers in the U.S.

The researchers from Washington University in St. Louis engineered a bacteria that uses photosynthesis to create oxygen during the day, and at night, uses nitrogen to create chlorophyll for photosynthesis.

The research, published in the journal
mBio
, could eliminate the use of some human-made fertilizer, which has a high environmental cost.

This discovery could have a revolutionary effect on agriculture and the health of the planet, according to scientists Himadri Pakrasi and Maitrayee Bhattacharyya.

Gene manipulation

Washington University’s Pakrasi lab based its research on the fact that, although there are no plants that can fix nitrogen from the air, there is a subset of cyanobacteria that is able to do so.

The bacteria used in this research,
Cyanothece
, is able to fix nitrogen because it has a circadian rhythm.

Cyanothece
photosynthesise during the day, converting sunlight to the chemical energy they use as fuel, and fix nitrogen at night, after removing most of the oxygen created during photosynthesis through respiration, researchers said.

The research team took the genes from
Cyanothece
, responsible for this day-night mechanism, and put them into another type of cyanobacteria,
Synechocystis
, to coax it into fixing nitrogen from the air too.

The next steps for the team are to dig deeper into the details of the process, perhaps narrow down even further the subset of genes necessary for nitrogen fixation.

The team will then collaborate with other plant scientists to apply the lessons learned from this study to the next level: developing nitrogen-fixing plants.

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