Can Corn Fix its Own Nitrogen?

March 31, 2010 07:00 PM

Pam Smith, Farm Journal Seeds & Production Editor

The Holy Grail for the corn industry is a hybrid that would fix its own nitrogen. University of Illinois agricultural engineer Kaustubh Bhalerao believes research in synthetic biology may be the key to "teaching” corn to do just that.

"We now understand enough about how genes work and how proteins are produced that we can actually think about reprogramming how living cells work,” he says.

Synthetic biology is a new area of research that combines science and engineering in order to design and build, or "synthesize,” novel biological functions and systems.

Bhalerao is leading a multidisciplinary research initiative with collaborators from the University of California, San Francisco; Stanford University; University of Cambridge and Newcastle University aimed at building systems that enable bacteria to spatially organize, communicate with and control plant cells. The research is funded through a grant of about $2 million from the U.S. National Science Foundation and the United Kingdom's Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

"We've developed the equivalent of an amplifier inside bacteria,” Bhalerao says. "The bacteria sense the presence of an amino acid in their environment and produce a protein in response. A positive feedback mechanism in the gene circuit amplifies the production of that protein. By using bacterial amplifiers, the systems become more sensitive.”

A specific application being investigated is the design of a system that enables nitrogen-fixing bacteria to communicate with the root systems of corn plants.

Soybean fixes its own nitrogen by sending a message to a bacterium that encourages it to colonize in the plant's roots. Once the right environment has developed, the bacteria will start fixing nitrogen for that plant.

"Why don't we teach corn how to do this?” Bhalerao asks. He says synthetic biologists have made biosensors to assist with other activities, such as nuclear mining of uranium and the detection of unexploded land mines in the soil.

"This type of technology allows us to think about interesting, novel solutions to major concerns, such as how we can feed more people or how we can produce more drinking water,” Bhalerao says.

You can email Pam Smith at

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