Researchers Awarded Grant to Improve How Plants Get Nitrogen, Reduce Pollution

Dan Florida, Industry News Release, Research


Matias Kirst. Assistant Professor, PhD. Quantitative Genetics. School of Forest Resources and Conservation.
Courtesy UF/IFAS

A team of researchers at the universities of Florida and Wisconsin-Madison will use a $7.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to pinpoint genes that could improve plants’ ability to access nitrogen, an essential nutrient for plant growth.

Enhancing plants’ nitrogen uptake could increase food security by promoting crop growth in poor soils and could reduce the need for nitrogen fertilizers, lowering costs for farmers and lessening environmental damage caused by runoff, said Matias Kirst, principal investigator, and professor of plant genomics at the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

“This is a critical problem not just for agriculture, but society in general,” Kirst said. “We’re going to use this technology to minimize fertilizer runoff, contamination of waterways and carbon dioxide release in the atmosphere.”

Most plants can only obtain nitrogen from the soil, which offers a limited supply. Many crops depend on nitrogen fertilizers to survive and produce high yields.

But some plants, such as legumes, have a unique way of working around this problem, researchers said. They have evolved a fine-tuned partnership with root-dwelling bacteria that capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and change it into a form that the plant can absorb and use, a process known as nitrogen fixation.

Understanding the evolutionary origins of this partnership and identifying the genes responsible for nitrogen fixation could enable scientists to introduce these genes into other plants, Kirst said. Adding these genes to crops such as wheat, corn, and rice could decrease the amount of nitrogen fertilizer they require and increase crop productivity.

“We hope to make an impact by improving yields and making agriculture more sustainable,” Kirst said.

Kirst will oversee the five-year project with four researchers from the Florida Museum of Natural History: UF distinguished professors and curators Pam Soltis and Doug Soltis, associate curator Rob Guralnick and research associate Ryan Folk. Agronomy professor Jean-Michel Ané and computational biologist Sushmita Roy from the University of Wisconsin-Madison are also on the investigative team.

by Brad Buck, University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences