15 July 2012
The new research, led by Professor Giles Oldroyd of the John Innes Centre, will investigate the possibility of engineering cereals to associate with nitrogen-fixing bacteria and of delivering this technology through the seed. If it is found to work, farmers would be able to share the technology by sharing seed. The research, furthermore, opens the door to the use of grasses as rotational crops to enhance soil nitrogen. The five-year research project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, could have most immediate benefit for subsistence farmers who cannot afford agricultural fertilisers for their crops.
The focus of the investigation will be maize, the most important staple crop for small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. Parallel studies in the wild grass Setaria viridis, which has a smaller genome and shorter life cycle, will speed up the rate of discovery. Discoveries will be applicable to all cereal crops including wheat, barley and rice.
The project will also help highlight where more research is needed. It will run in parallel to ongoing research funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council into how nitrogen fixation works in legumes. It will also run in parallel to an existing Gates-funded project, N2Africa, to improve nitrogen management in African farming systems more immediately.