|CC photo by Wheat initiative on Flickr|
There's no doubt that world agriculture desperately needs to find an alternative to our current dependence on artificial nitrogen fertilizers. They’re expensive, energy- and fossil fuel-hungry, climate-, environment- and health-damaging.
Natural conversion of nitrogen gas in the air to a form usable by plants is carried out by soil bacteria. Scientists who are aware of the complexity of nitrogen-fixation in such bacteria have reservations about whether the process can be translated by GM into higher plants. Besides the 20 genes involved (each structured to express in bacteria not in plant cells) and the enzymes needed (some of which are assembled from separately generated components and some of which incorporate iron and molybdenum ions), the reaction itself can only take place if oxygen is excluded. The energy costs and metabolic contortions needed to achieve such novel reactions and conditions in a plant are so extensive that achieving a robust crop at the end of the day may be a “pipe-dream” (Institute of Science in Society).
However, researchers at Newcastle University have been following another line of inquiry. They've come up with 'N-fix' technology.