spreading nitrogen

Crops such as corn might not need as much fertilizer if the plant can produce its own nitrogen, UW-Madison researchers say.

Jane Fyksen for Agri-View

Plants producing their own nitrogen would require less fertilizer and reduce environmental pollution, and researchers at UW-Madison will be studying it thanks to a grant from a federal agency.

UW-Madison and University of Florida researchers will share a $7 million grant from the Department of Energy to study how some plants partner with bacteria to create usable nitrogen, and then transfer this ability to poplar, a bioenergy crop.

The scientists will study how legumes evolved into having the ability to cooperate with bacteria to turn nitrogen — which as a gas is the largest component of air — into a form usable by plants, according to a release from the university. Researchers are trying to transfer this “nitrogen fixation” ability in the plants that can do it to other plants.

This work is longstanding at UW-Madison, said project leader Jean-Michel Ane, professor of bacteriology and agronomy.

“UW-Madison for decades has been a leader in research on nitrogen fixation, in biochemistry, in agronomy and in bacteriology,” Ane said. “There has been a really long history of research on the enzyme that performs nitrogen fixation.”

Plants producing their own nitrogen would require less fertilizer, which would save farmers money and reduce environmental pollution caused by fertilizer runoff into waterways, the release said.

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Bill Novak is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.