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Plants and Bacteria Working Together

Imagine if crops could thrive without nitrogen-rich industrial fertilizer. That’s the premise behind research looking at nitrogen-fixing bacteria in certain plants being conducted by Dr. Krzysztof Szczyglowski, an Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) research scientist at the Southern Crop Protection and Food Research Centre in London, Ontario.

With global demand for food increasing, finding ways to optimize plant growth while reducing or minimizing the use of synthetic inputs such as fertilizer will be of great benefit to the sector. Nitrogen fertilizers boost plant growth, giving producers more crop to sell. However, production of nitrogen fertilizers has its costs and challenges.

Fortunately some plants have developed an ability to find the nitrogen they need to flourish naturally.

As Dr. Szczyglowski explains, “Some plants, mainly legumes (such as soybeans and alfalfa), don’t need industrial nitrogen fertilizers. These plants have developed a relationship with certain soil bacteria which they house in root nodules. These nodules allow the plant to get nitrogen from the atmosphere, without fertilizers. Since atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, it represents a largely unused source and alternative to agricultural fertilizers.”

Dr. Szczyglowski’s research focuses on understanding how this beneficial relationship develops: why these specific soil bacteria can enter the root and why the plant then builds nodules. After identifying several key symbiotic plant genes, his work attracted world-wide attention and appeared in several prestigious scientific journals, including Science.

Since then, he has continued to work toward the goal of limiting the need for nitrogen fertilizers in crops that can support specific bacteria and provide nitrogen for themselves.

The relationship between nitrogen-fixing bacteria and plants has been studied for more than 100 years. Szczyglowski, who has devoted 25 years to this research, estimates the next 10-20 years will bring a full understanding of this relationship as well as broad application of the findings.

The Southern Crop Protection and Food Research Centre is part of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s network of research centres across the country. The Centre conducts research in the areas of crop genomics, biotechnology, and integrated pest management (insects and plant diseases). One of the key goals of AAFC research is to promote scientific innovation and environmental sustainability, to help the sector build resiliency and expand opportunities for growth.

For more information, contact:

Media Relations
AgriCulture and Agri-Food Canada
Ottawa, Ontario

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