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Discovery of nitrogen-fixing corn variety could reduce need for added fertilizer (ucdavis.edu)
272 points by selimthegrim 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 105 comments





This is a very big deal. Scientists have been looking for five decades for corn in the wild that fixed its own nitrogen. Commercial nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas using the Haber process:

http://guichon-valves.com/faqs/nitrogen-fertilizers-manufact...

Now it may take a decade or more for corn breeders to create a new variety of this corn that produces commercially viable yields but it will change not just the fertilizer industry but farming overall when it happens.


I was watching a lecture by vaclav smil talking about the the importance of the Haber process. Without that invention 40% of the world could not exist - there just isn't enough nitrogen in the soil to support our consumption. And it's guys like Steve jobs that get called innovators! Absolute nonsense!

It's worth noting that Fritz Haber is also credited with the development of chemical warfare, being one of the leaders in the deployment of chlorine gas during the 1st world war. His life is an interesting read: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fritz_Haber

He was reported on by Radiolab in an episode about the good and bad that people do: https://www.wnycstudios.org/story/180092-the-bad-show/


There is a good book called the Alchemy of Air that goes into this quite a bit.


I wanted to upvote what you said because you contributed a very positive, affirming, knowledge bit about the Haber process, but then you decided to end it on such a divisive negative note:

> And it's guys like Steve jobs that get called innovators! Absolute nonsense!

There are an infinite number of reasonable ways to measure innovation, and there are so many metrics by which "guys LIKE Steve Jobs"(whatever that means) come out on top.

From a humanitarian perspective, Fritz Haber ended up creating a process that helped us take huge steps forward as a collective species.

We can acknowledge that without putting down other innovators.

We can ALL be acknowledged for our innovation.


> From a humanitarian perspective, Fritz Haber ended up creating a process that helped us take huge steps forward as a collective species.

It also made possible the industrial production of dynamite and other conventional explosives, and you could say it's why WW2 dwarfed WW1 in terms of destructive power. Point is, it's not a one-sided issue as you say.


Explosives are pretty useful for construction, though.

If Apple hadn't come out with the iPhone there were a dozen other companies that were working on similar products and today we would have something else iPhone-ish. Without Steve Jobs the inventors of the iPhone, such as Tony Fadell, would have probably done similar work for some other CEO.

You can apply that argument to every single discovery, innovation, and development of humankind. Well, maybe not to the discovery of America, as it was sheer dumb luck. But in any case "someone else would have done it eventually" is an empty argument.

    > Without that invention 40% of
    > the world could not exist[...]
What's the source for that 40% number? I'm skeptical of such claims because usually they're only narrowly focused on, in this case, how much of current agriculture would be sustainable without fertilizer assuming current land usage and prices.

But of course if we didn't have fertilizer we would have never ended up with the current system, and e.g. meats would be a lot more expensive since they take more land to raise than vegetables, which would be in harder competition with them due to higher prices on land.

This is likely similar to claims that "in N years we'll run out of fossil fuels". No, in N years we'll run out of areas that are currently economical to mine for fossil fuels, but at that point prices will rise and new fields will open up.


To be pedantic, in N years we will run out of fossil fuels - or at least, fossil fuels that deliver positive EROEI. In the 1950s, petroleum was recovered at roughly 100:1 EROEI. Today, the Canadian tar sands are about 3.5:1, and they're profitable. The good oil is already long gone.

Peak oil is a matter of when, not if. It is not an infinite resource. The interesting (and worrisome) question to me is if we'll be able to convert the transportation grid to predominantly electric (and thus powerable by solar/wind) before we hit a global peak and start losing maximum recoverable oil at 3-10%/year, which will cause intense price spikes and resource wars, due to inelastic demand.


The good oil is not already long gone.

There are massive areas off US coasts with proven reserves that are legally untouched (CA moratorium after Santa Barbara spill only allows for marginal/incremental pumping). In the time between those reserves being shut off and now, the economics of retrieving that oil changed completely, and there is now a ton of "easy oil" off the california coast.

Nobody's arguing that oil is not an infinite resource, but I can point to a single location that contains immense amounts of easily tappable oil.

While the original motivation for the CA moratorium was ecological, these days it's (implicitly) economic. All CA has to do is wait until the price spikes start happening, and dribble out oil at very high prices while hoping there isn't another Deepwater Horizon.


fwiw, I did a little investigation. Total California offshore resources are estimated 4-6B bbls, mostly heavy oil. Contrast this with the 71B bbls estimated remaining in Saudi Arabia's Ghawar field (after almost 70 years of production!). There are dozens of fields in production throughout the world that are larger, many an order of magnitude larger, with better quality oil and far less risk.

(I can't tell if you're an expert in gas/oil, or not. I work with a lot of people from the gas/oil industry, so I'm not an expert per se, but I do read a lot about the industry).

The proven reserves for California are based on historic estimates, they haven't been thoroughly re-evaluated, and were based on previous extraction technologies (before side-drilling etc). The current position of my friends who do oil/gas analysis is that California proven reserve estimates are at least 1 order of magnitude below reality mainly because people aren't actively looking because of the moratorium.


That doesn't change the heavy vs light oil problem, though (probably). Heavy oil is harder to pump, harder to handle, and more costly to refine.

The point of all this is that California's offshore fields aren't all that special, and they aren't "easy oil". If they were, any environmentalist resistance would have been defeated long ago.


> with better quality oil and far less risk.

I know you said this in reference to Californian oil, but it also applies to Saudi oil. The number of dollars paid isn’t the only cost of using that oil.


Well, that's true of fossil fuel in general. There's a significant political and environmental cost, and those costs are both increasing. Oil fields belong to whomever owns the guns surrounding them, and the money goes to the kinds of social projects preferred by the kind of people who put guns around oil wells.

> while hoping there isn't another Deepwater Horizon.

At least install an effective blow-out protector.


Offshore drilling in an earthquake zone is not "easy oil". It's a disaster waiting to happen. I do agree that, if we are desperate, we will use it anyway. But I don't think that's good or healthy or responsible.

offshore drilling in an earthquake zone is an engineering job. it's done all the time, costs a bit more, but doesn't dramatically increase risk.

Even if your definition of "oil left" is when EROEI hits 1:1, that still doesn't mean we're out of oil, since there's applications for oil that don't involve extracting energy for it. So it'll continue to be mined even when we're losing energy by doing so.

Now, I probably should have picked a better comparison, since oil really is zero-sum in ways that needing to grow more food isn't.

The point is that in an alternate universe where agriculture was 40% less efficient it doesn't follow that there would be 40% fewer people. Rather, more of the gross world product would be spent on agriculture, since there's a lot you can do to throw more money at the problem to increase yields, and pricing would do a lot to increase the efficiency.


Well, sure. Earth's population has grown roughly 100% in the past 50 years, largely due to the advances of Green Revolution agriculture. This isn't just nitrogen fixing. It's advances in mechanization, transportation, finance, preservation techniques, and more. All of those things would have happened (more or less) even without fixed fertilizer.

I disagree with the idea that there'd be proportionally less meat, for a couple of reasons. First, a lot of grazing-animal meat (beef, basically) comes from land that is unviable for plowing or other vegetation farming. Second, in the absence of inexpensive chemical fertilizer, manure would be a much more important fixer, just like it has been for thousands of years.


What's really going to bake your noodle is, when I worked as an advisor for a major Silicon Valley venture capital group, I learned: most SV VCs don't want to invest in biotech because it takes 10-15 years before you get any feedback on your investment's quality (and most of the time, it's just "they went out of business."), while in tech, you just give $1M to 20 companies, one of them hits the billion dollar jackpot in a year.

Your western imperial biases are showing.

China was doing pretty well for itself for millennia with intensive terracing and silt harvesting. They have fields that have been under cultivation for four thousand years. We can barely manage four hundred.

And pre Columbian California was agrofoerstry from sea to foothills with seasonal migrations.

Without anhydrous ammonia we would have a diet much higher in legumes and lower in staple starch, which is probably killing us anyway. A more efficient source of high fructose corn syrup doesn’t inspire confidence in our future.

Corn still uses far too much water for us to sustain indefinitely.

[Edit] We would also be using more perennial crops, which don't have to build up an entire plant from seed every year. More efficient, as long as your form of civilization does not involve moving into new areas every ten years.


Current populations are orders of magnitude higher than they were when the techniques you mentioned were used. This has nothing to do with western bias.

No. There are less than 3 times as many people in China today versus 1900, when the techniques I mentioned were still prevalent.

Before the introduction of western diseases, North America had a much larger population than we are taught in our Manifest Destiny classes. It's fair to say that the population here is about one order of magnitude greater, but if we ran the Mississippi watershed the way the Chinese managed the Yangtze [1]? Or the tribes of California? [2] We'd still be doing pretty well without anhydrous.

Again, though, we'd be eating a lot more beans. We should be eating a lot more beans. And nuts.

When Polynesians settled Hawai'i, they brought a couple dozen species with them (canoe plants) and found the Koa, a nitrogen fixing tree. When Europeans occupied Hawai'i, they brought a few more, including the monkeypod (another nitrogen fixing tree) as cattle fodder. The bean pods are high in protein.

> "However, in the soil of natural ecosystems, nitrogen occurs predominantly as proteins."[3]

Everyone talks about the magic of nitrogen in plant and soil biology, but at the end of the day, it's the protein cycle that matters. "Feed the soil, feed the plant"[4] requires polycultures instead of monocultures in order to work, but we could do it. We would have done it. George Washington Carver wanted to do it [5] but he got outmaneuvered by industrial agriculture (and structural racism). In another world without anhydrous he probably would have found more success.

Tl;dr: Things would look very, very different but not necessarily smaller - or worse - if not for chemical fertilizer, and we may have to get to that world soon if we want to keep on breathing and eating.

References:

1: Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and Japan, F. H. King

2: Tending the Wild, M. Kat Anderson

3: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2393761/

4: Roughly any book on Permaculture

5: My Work Is That of Conservation: An Environmental Biography of George Washington Carver


Though it is also true that we right now produce above 5000 kcal per capita according to FAO. Well above individual calorie needs. "To support our consumption" may be, but the configuration of our current consumption itself is problematic.

You can get enough calories and be still malnourished [1]. We should instead calculate how many people can be fed so that all of their dietary needs are satisfied.

The calculation should include logistics, nutritious food that can't be transported unspoiled to the people in need does little good.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malnutrition#Dietary_practices


I think the political problem far outweighs the logistical one. until the local governments in these area start respect personal, productivity, and property rights, the people will forever be suffering.

And corruption. Both on micro and macro level. Individuals, officials and politicians. When "everyone" does it, everyone deems it ok to do so as well.

Just fixing corruption would go a long way towards that goal.


The correllation between invention awareness and significance is almost completely random.

Also goes for inventor reward. Contrast Diesel and Parsons.

Smil is a world treasure. Seriously, start reading his books.

NB, I'm looking for sources showing major inventions through history (Smil is one source). Roughly by decade to about 1850, 25 years to 1600, centuries to 1250 or so, and expanding granularity to 10,000, 100k, and 1m BCE.

Needham's Science & Civilisation is another source.


I loved Smil's talk so much I ended up buying his last 5 books right after and I'm busy with Energy and Civilisation right now (Lesson being I should not be allowed access to the Kindle Store after I've had 3 glasses of wine)

But yeah I agree with you there- at the time no one (maybe apart from Edison) knew how big an impact they would have.


Daniel Yergin's The Prize gets futher into the development of the oil industry, and some of what spawned from it (industry, monopoly, antitrust, war, cartels, commodity regulation, policy (foreign, domestic, military, ...), monetary, and more.

Manfred Weissenbacher's Sources of Power is a difficult-to-find and somewhat uneven book, but builds largely on Smil's premise (from his earlier Energy and World History) to include political and social consequences.

I've been finding institutional and media consequences and dynamics also of interest. Some reading of interest:

https://old.reddit.com/r/dredmorbius/comments/7k7l4m/media_a...

More recently: Paul Baran and Norbert Wiener.


Indeed, Haber process is the second most important invention after mankind's mastery of fire, possibly third after mastery of metalworking.

Life without it might've been possible, but we would be incomparably more reliant on cereals and natural sources of nitrogen fertilisers. And be sure, we would've still be having wars over fertile lands.


We also wouldn't have overpopulation of the scale that we do now. I agree though that the Haber process is one of the most impactful inventions ever

North American agriculture universities are the unsung heroes of the modern age. Endless quiet innovations in crop yields that have fed the exploding world population in the post world-war era.

When we run out of oil and natural gas, or at least start having substantial shocks to the supply lines, it will be an absolute Armageddon!

Just in time grocery store inventories and trucks with empty fuel tanks will starve as many people as Haberless crops.

Humanity is much more likely to suffer a huge calamity from lack of fossil fuels than it is to overcome the problem with technology.


Back during cold war, it was said that US fall into famine if the four biggest fertiliser stockpiles were to be struck/sabotaged/nuked and US will be unable to import food from abroad.

Sounds ridiculous now, but at in 60-70ies (and to lesser extend today,) US had high double digits of world's total agricultural output


At 28% not so much interesting. If you still have to run the ammonia sprayer through the field (for the other 72%) then yours costs are almost exactly the same, but for a few cents of ammonia. Its avoiding the task altogether where some real savings could occur.

I hope this pans out. We could be on the brink of another Green Revolution.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Green_Revolution


Is this potentially a route to engineering other self-nitrogen-fixing crops?

Probably not. It doesn't actually fix its own nitrogen. This corn has a bunch of roots that don't touch the ground. It then produces an environment in/on those roots that is conducive to the growth of nitrogen-fixing bacteria. This is very much not a case of having a couple genes that could be transferred to other plants.

To get modern corn to do this will probably require a lot of breeding to bring together and select for the traits of both varieties.


Thats interesting, grapevines are using same mechanism to get the nitrogen, but the real problem is that once you introduce artifical source of digestable version of nitrogen, plant decide that it is not worth of investing into this ecosystem and it gets addicted on this supply.

Maybe this is quite common trait in other plant species and it is just not propagated due to the availability of nitrogen?


Can you link to more info about grapes fixing nitrogen? I've never heard of that.

Seems like there are not that much information available in English. I am based in Europe and most of research I am familiar with comes from other languages sources (German, French).

I found one source that looks promissing, but I haven't really read it: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13593-015-0329-7


Long term for related grasses like sorghum I'd say yes but crops like cotton or potatoes I'm more doubtful. Other grasses such as rice or wheat I'm just not sure because they're so different.

> Long term for related grasses like sorghum

Would that include rice? That would make it an even bigger deal wouldn't it?

How important is nitrogen fixing in combating desertification and could discoveries like this ultimately help reverse it?


Are there any nitrogen fixing plants that live in water like rice? I have problems envisaging the biochemical processes there, but I don't know much about it in the first place.

Azolla (water fern / mosquito fern).

In fact, using Azolla as rice companion plant is a long-standing practice in China: after flooding, rice paddies are seeded with Azolla, it multiplies (very) rapidly covering the surface and suppressing weeds (Azolla mats are very dense so water weeds get little to no sun) then releases nitrogen for the rice plants when it dies and rots.


Oh wow that's very interesting, thanks!

I know that first attempts to make crops to produce nitrogenase date to eighties. The ferment doesn't like to work outside of bacteria.

I'm sure that agro people were working on this problem non-stop for decades.


This is great! Our company sells seed and fertilizer to smallholder farmers, and so I feel pretty comfortable saying that under application of Nitrogen on crops in the developing world is one of the biggest causes of poor yields and also an incredibly difficult problem to solve. (We do an incredible amount to make distributing fertilizer in 100kg increments and it's still a logistical nightmare.)

It's a 9 month variety instead of a 3 month variet, and so if I was making a rough guess, I'd say that the most likely outcome is that this leads to a ~20-25% reduction in fertilizer use after it's bred into main crop lines (at least initially.) Honestly though, now that this trait is around, it's going to be a lot easier for big seed companies to breed improvements into this. This is huge, and incredibly exciting.


The corn is feeding sugars to the microbes that do the nitrogen-fixing, this has to mean some energy cost to the corn itself. Can anyone comment if this makes a notable dent in the yield of the corn, compared to a situation when the corn gets the nitrogen for free from fertilizers? Or perhaps the extra energy expenditure is so small that it doesn't matter in practice?

Of course, in situations when a farmer simply cannot afford to buy nitrogen fertilizers, the potentially lower yield doesn't matter, because the only alternative is no yield at all.


Even before checking what the data says, if this is a symbiosis instead of a simple infection, I would say the corn will benefit by large, and the energy balance will be in favor of corn.

Plants get energy from the sun, but can only use it to grow if the right nutrients are available. Nitrogen is needed for protein synthesis and must be readily available. So this is a win-win for corn and bacteria.

Synthetic NPK fertilizers are a way of giving plants what they need: generally, farmers will almost always put nitrogen regardless of what the soil already has, which has unintended consequences.

So this symbiosis has an added bonus for human communities.

Another way of making nitrogen available to plants is to plant mixed crops. The problem with corn is that the shoots are too close to each other to allow anything else to grow, which is something common in large scale agriculture, whose current practice is to make use of large patches of land dedicated to a single annual crop. Whatever is left from the harvest should and must be reintegrated into the soil.


https://arstechnica.com/science/2018/05/plants-repeatedly-go...

So, yes, it is an energy intensive, demanding process, but we NEED to make the corn plants do it. Every plant would rather pass the buck to another plant species (or our species) and not have to deal with the trouble of making their own nitrogen. But when we provide nitrogen, in the form of fertilizer, for the plants, the environmental impact is immense. The fertilizer washes off into the nearby stagnant bodies of water, creating huge algal blooms that can suffocate whatever was trying to live in that water.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Algal_bloom


The algal bloom is only part of the problem. Another big one is that due to the large amounts of nitrogen (and other) deposition plants which thirve on it (common grasses, nettles to name some common ones) can grow fast hereby taking away space and light of the slower growing species (herb-like species, typical flowering species found in meadows for instance). The result, after years and years, is extremely detrimental to biodiversity: some of the species are nearing extinction, sometimes together with the insects whos lifecycle depends on solely those species.

Dairy farming can be terrible for nitrogen runoff too. It’s a massive problem in NZ and between farming and urbanisation we have badly damaged a large portion of our waterways. https://www.landcareresearch.co.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/00...

Yup. And there's industry/combustion engines as well. All happily releasing nitrogen in one form or another. It's sad that a lot of nature conservation organizations' work is simply just mowing/removing mowed substance/repeat and then after a years of countering the influence of nitrogen they get a meadow which looks sort of 'natural', i.e. typical vegetation for specific type of soil which used to be common decades ago. And beautiful too. On a related note: where I live a millimetered lawn without any kind of plant which isn't grass still seems to be considered the summum of gardening. But as far as nature and biodiversity goes it's almost as dead as concrete. Still a lot which could be gained in those areas as well.

I'm thinking Algal Blooms could be a potential solution to carbon sequestration

Phytoplankton are basically algae, and they’re a huge natural carbon sink when they die and fall to the bottom of the ocean.

It’s just that we’re overwhelming this sequestration mechanism by digging up and burning dead phytoplankton much faster than new ones grow to replace them.


If one buries them afterwards. If not, they will eventually die, rot and release the carbon back to the atmosphere.

But eutrophication has other issues: it is harmful for animal life and it unbalances the ecosystem, degrading biodiversity and overall making natural carbon sequestration poorer.

Maybe in a controlled setting, one could use a dragnet to harvest algae and use it for fertilization. That would certainly improve the efficiency of nitrogen usage.


Agreed, but we need a bit more control of them than "dump nitrogen into bodies of water that happen to be nearby farmland".

Possibly.

Wetlands are among the most productive ecosystems anywhere, and might sequester substantial biomass.

A freshwater pond plant, eeffectively, may be responsible for an earlier global cooling period due to carbon sequestration.


Nitrogen fixation is a very expensive process in terms of energy, and it has to be as N2 is a really stable molecule and it simply takes a lot of energy to convert it to something else. No way to get around the thermodynamics of that reaction.

I did a quick search and found an abstract of an old paper (https://www.nature.com/articles/267149a0) that estimates around 15% of total energy used for nitrogen fixation. The value probably depends a lot on various factors, but it is certainly a significant amount.


It's not just that, but biology has evolved nitrogenase only once (it's not trivial) and the process is very inefficient. Something like five? Molecules of hydrogen get produced, that's not counting the six hydrogen atoms that get incorporated in to the ammonia. It's enough of a big deal that some microorganisms salvage the leftover hydrogen for energy. There are some microorganisms that salvage their neighbors leftover hydrogen.

Also nitrogenase is very porous and oxygen sensitive so for photosynthetic organisms sequestering the nitrogen fixation away from co2 fixation is a major challenge. Nostoc deals with it by evolving terminal cell differentiation... Cyanothece has a night/day genetic switch, and higher plants fix nitrogen as far away from the leaves as possible.


> but biology has evolved nitrogenase only once (it's not trivial) and the process is very inefficient. Something like five? Molecules of hydrogen get produced, that's not counting the six hydrogen atoms that get incorporated in to the ammonia. It's enough of a big deal that some microorganisms salvage the leftover hydrogen for energy. There are some microorganisms that salvage their neighbors leftover hydrogen.

Wow that's crazy. And to think life absolutely depends on it, so I guess it used natural sources of ammonia.

(And to think the same substance that's so dear to plants is excreted by animals, including us)


life doesn't depend on it, there's plenty of ur-ammonia around.

> It's not just that, but biology has evolved nitrogenase only once (it's not trivial)

I don't know, on the one hand it may have evolved only once[0], on the other hand it seems to have been hit fairly early on (1.5~2.2Ga, quickly following significant expansion of oxygen production so the needs for additional bioavailable nitrogen could have been a direct consequence of that and just not necessary before) and spread around by lateral genetic transfer, significantly lowering the chances that it'd evolve again.

[0] it may also have evolved multiple times in a short time-span, and have had no need to re-evolve since


fair point, we can never know for sure, but there are other mechanisms (like carbon fixation) that have clearly been multi-evolved... you would think that biology would at least have found an oxygen tolerant version for the modern era, as it has for carbon fixation (RuBisCo is not the only way)

There are numerous biological mechanisms which seem to have evolved only once. That's not to say there is not a better way, but the task of outcompeting an established incumbent is formidable. RNA, DNA, mitochondria, flowering plants, much of mammalian brain structure (including emotions), offhand. Various enzymes and hormones are remarkably consistent across vaast swathes of the genetic tree.

The article mentions on of the downsides being 9 month growing cycles, vs the 3 months for corn grown currently.

Here in Western Europe there is only one harvest of corn a year anyway (mostly for fodder), with a nitrogen fixer sown in and ploughed under later summer/fall. Are there places where multiple harvests per year of corn is possible?

But a 9 month growing cycle means that this corn won't have enough time to grow.

I’d be worried about the summer months too and not just the winters if this year is any guide.

Mexico, apparently, where this plant was found!

Pivot Bio (http://pivotbio.com/) is testing nitrogen-fixing microbes on corn this year.

And we are hiring: http://pivotbio.com/careers


Don't get too excited.

Beans also partner with nitrogen-fixers, but farmers fertilize them with nitrogen anyway. Why? Higher yield. And then the beans stop partnering with the nitrogen-fixers because they're already getting nitrogen for free without having to feed and house the microbes.

So this is great for people who don't have access to fertilizer (as the article notes!) but it will do nothing to solve the overapplication of fertilizer in industrial agriculture.

(Those "roots" look hella cool, though.)

UPDATE: I may have been mistaken about the exact relationship -- it's possible this could reduce nitrogen inputs somewhat for industrial ag, but maybe only if the soil isn't already saturated with N. Need to go back and look at sources... https://igrow.org/agronomy/soybeans/application-of-nitrogen-... has some of the info.


Am important note that no one has raised yet: this is NOT a discovery, this has been a very long running project, run between scientists and native peoples. The headline steamrolls the fact that this is absolutely not an accident, but the payoff on over a decade of research and hard work.

Shame on you, U.C.Davis. Your own article literally explains this, why the disingenuous headline?


I think "discovery" is commonly used both for serendipitous discoveries and for successful research efforts (though sometimes it may have a connotation more of the former). (There's also the metaphysical and marketing question about things being invented vs. discovered.)

Without having looked at the article, I interpreted it as "we found something in the wild or already in cultivation, not already known to us", not "we made dis".

The majority of corn is used for Ethanol production:

https://www.forbes.com/sites/austinfrerick/2018/08/06/10etha...

Which has negligible environmental benefit, and is a pointless long-term strategy given that the vehicle fleet is becoming increasingly electrified.

Its a shame that political solutions to more effectively use the Earth's resources are more difficult than bioengineering corn.


Not technically true that the majority of corn is used for ethanol (other uses combine to make it a plurality, rather than majority), but still, amazingly true that ethanol is now the leading use of corn acreage planted (which I did not know and is why you get the upvote).

Very interesting. Also interesting to see how tall corn can grow near the tropics! Roots in the air, all that is interesting. I noticed that corn in Ohio seems taller this year. I call it monster corn, but I've never seen corn quite as gigantic as mexican corn. We have a saying "knee high by july" but for the last 10 years or more it is more like knee high by the first week of june or better.

Another ahaian here. I like to say corn as high as an elephants eye by the forth of July to get an eye roll out of my wife, but for the last few years I’m not that far off the mark.

hey go bucks! and all that..


Thanks for the link to the paper. This is potentially very exciting news - the benefits of Three Sisters agriculture with one of our staple crops.

It’s great that this was found and that the locals hadn’t gone for growing the standard varieties that are used elsewhere. It’s striking when in South America how many varieties of farmed plants are grown. Local markets are selling tens of varieties of potatoes and corn in a rainbow of colours. A local told me it was partly done as an insurance policy against disease. It makes you wonder what else is out there.

Kind of interesting that Mars, the candy company, is funding this. Good for them. The world needs more competition in the agricultural business with the Monsanto/Bayer merger. It's nice that they are pursuing traditional hybridization instead of GMO everything.

These are very exciting news. The most interesting part:

The study found the Sierra Mixe corn obtains 28 to 82 percent of its nitrogen from the atmosphere. To do this, the corn grows a series of aerial roots. Unlike conventional corn, which has one or two groups of aerial roots near its base, the nitrogen-fixing corn develops eight to ten thick aerial roots that never touch the ground.

During certain times of the year, these roots secrete a gel-like substance, or mucilage. The mucilage provides the low-oxygen and sugar-rich environment required to attract bacteria that can transform nitrogen from the air into a form the corn can use.


Wow, in-species nitrogen fixation. Shame of the recent EU ruling on CRISPR (considering it GMO). Now we can't grow this in Europe.

Seems fairly clear that a CRISPR-modified plant would indeed be a GMO. What's a real shame is blanket banning GMO crops. I admit a great deal of ignorance in this realm, but from what I understand, a ban on over-use of pesticides (which appear to be the cause of most/all harm attributed to GMOs) would make more sense than a ban on GMOs, which can be for plenty of things besides pesticide tolerance (like nitrogen fixation!)

GMOs and pesticides are complicated. Some GMOs increase the use of pesticides, some decrease it. Overall the effect appears to be negative.

http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/2/8/e1600850

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21645698.2016.1...


Can we have confidence in our ability to protect biological systems from unforeseen and less accounted for effects of increasingly powerful technologies? From the state of things in 2018 - surely this is not a paranoid concern.

I am all for research into GMO and controlled applications in medicine and secure problem cases, but find the history of industry and mass agriculture can not yet be trusted with it.


I have been hoping that we could use CRISPR or something like that to make perennial nitrogen fixing wheat. Making cereals into a perennial and fix their own nitrogen could be huge.

I also presume it may not happen for a very long time as most of the big seed companies would be presumably very against it.


Seed companies would love it assuming they can get it. Fertilizer companies would hate it. A company that produces both might suffer some kind of breakdown.

Many of the seed companies now are fertilizer (and pesticide/herbicide) companies.

Externally applied nitrogen has the benefit that the wheat plant doesn't need to divert sugars to the symbiotes for nitrogen production, and can instead spend it on making heads of grain.

As cool as it is, I'm not clear that it actually helps efficiency in industrial agriculture. Partly depends on how efficient the symbiotes are vs. how expensive synthetic fertilizer production is.


Interesting. I am not an expert, and it sounds like you are, so thanks for adding that.

Even if it wasn't quite as efficient, could it be worth the trade-off in terms of reduced CO2? As the application of synthetic fertiliser etc is very fossil fuel intensive?


I'm not an expert either, I just know some and have heard of some of these issues—so I don't have anything definitive to say, just that it's not a clear win in my eyes.

I also don't know if the wheat plants are even sugar-limited, for that matter! I guess what I'm saying is "plants are complicated". :-P


Just another reason for big Agriculture to create more GMOs. /s

This would really be amazing. Honest concern... How does the fertilizer industry fight this? There are billions of dollars a year at stake here. Nobody faces billions of lost revenue without a fight.


My guess: it's shaping up similarly to the solar/wind <--> coal fight.

At some point, there's not enough money you can lobby with compared to the real world needs and competing lobbies (here: food/nmonsanto etc) and the balance shifts. Also, in non-US countries people might take a more pragmatic approach, giving new tech a leg up.

E.g., China, India might not care so much about the US fertilizer lobby.


The only way to really fight something like this is to make GMO's and the people who produce these plant varieties into some sort of boogeyman, no? We see this happen all over the world, not just in the US. The current level of misinformation about the safety of GMOs is already very overblown in the world. Don't get me wrong, GMOs are being weaponized for monetary purposes in, what I believe, are very unethical ways. But those arguments are not what you see most when arguments against them are made.

I just don't see any other angle to attack nitrogen fixing corn other than to make some sort of GMO boogeyman out of it. It is really amazing the amount of misinformation that is populating the world for the purpose of protecting cash cows.

sidenote Thanks for the downvotes :) apparently my sarcasm hit a nerve.


That's an interesting point. I think there is some truth to that in the US and Europe.

I have a hard time believing that this will become a huge problem in China and India particularly. The gov there isn't interested in giving these storylines a leg up, and people have other problems, such as Melamine-contaminated baby formula (or having food shortages)




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