Nitrogen fixing nodules growing on the root of a legume plant|
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
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,
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
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.