Crop Tech Corner

Nitrogen-Fixing Grass, Drought-Defeating Sugar

Emily Unglesbee
By  Emily Unglesbee , DTN Staff Reporter
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Researchers have found a way to make grass fix its own nitrogen with help from bacteria. They hope the discovery can produce more nitrogen-fixing food crops. (DTN photo illustration by Nick Scalise)

ST. LOUIS (DTN) -- This bi-monthly column condenses the latest news in the field of crop technology, research and products.

A NEW KIND OF NITROGEN FIXATION

Soybeans and other legumes may not have the monopoly on nitrogen fixation for much longer. According to a University of Missouri press release, university researchers have found a way for a grass plant known as Setaria viridis to fix nitrogen from the soil with help from certain bacteria. They hope Setaria viridis could serve as a model for other related crops, such as corn and rice, to help scientists produce more nitrogen-fixing crops and lower the need for supplemental nitrogen applications.

Legumes have long been appreciated for the root nodules they grow that allow them to fix nitrogen from the soil. Because grassy crops such as corn have no such feature, they must be supplemented with nitrogen fertilizer to increase yields. MU researchers have shown that when the grass Setaria viridis' roots were colonized with bacteria called Azospirillum brasilense, the plant fixed 100% of its nitrogen needs from soil that had been stripped of its nutrients. "By identifying the bacteria that allows plants to take in nitrogen, we may have found a more efficient and eco-friendly way to farm," University of Missouri postdoctoral fellow and co-author Fernanda Amaral said in the press release. "Further studies may explore a similar relationship in [corn and rice] and could lead to a plant friendly way to promote more sustainable agriculture."

You can find the MU press release here: http://bit.ly/…, and the study abstract and access options here: http://bit.ly/….

A SWEET SOLUTION TO DROUGHTY CORN

Scientists from Syngenta and a UK agricultural research institute called Rothamsted Research have found that tweaking the levels of sugar in corn can significantly improve its ability to yield in both normal and drought conditions. According to a joint press release from the two organizations, Syngenta scientists genetically engineered corn plants to alter their levels of a sugar known as T6P, which is responsible for allocating sucrose to different parts of the plant as it grows. As a result of the altered levels of T6P, the corn kernels of the GE corn plants received more sucrose. Multiple years of field trials in North and South America showed that under normal conditions or mild drought, the GE corn's yields increased between 9% and 49%, and under severe drought, their yields increased between 31% and 123%.

"This technology has the potential to greatly improve maize productivity," researcher Matthew Paul, who led the Rothamsted Research team, said in the press release. "Imagine what could be achieved for global food security if this trait were targeted in other crops too. Not only does it increase maximum yield output but it also prevents catastrophic yield loss in dry years."

For more information, see the press release here: http://bit.ly/…, and read the full study, published in Nature Biotechnology, here: http://bit.ly/….

MONSANTO GE CORN UP FOR PUBLIC COMMENT

The public has until Aug. 20 to weigh in on USDA's preliminary recommendation to deregulate a new corn hybrid from Monsanto genetically engineered to increase ear biomass. The trait, known as MON 87403, is being developed in collaboration with BASF, Monsanto Communications Manager Jeff Neu told DTN in an email. MON 87403 was created by inserting a gene from a small flowering plant known as Arabidopsis thaliana into corn plants, according to USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's (APHIS) preliminary plant pest risk assessment.

The bigger ears of the GE corn hybrids "provide growers with an opportunity for increased grain yield at harvest," Neu said. "Increased ear biomass during early ear development has been shown by agronomic researchers to be one [factor] that is important for increased grain yield at harvest." Specifically, company trials showed an 11.7% increase in R1 ear biomass and a 10% increase in "biomass partitioning" (the ratio of ear biomass to total biomass) in MON 87403 compared to control hybrids, APHIS noted in its assessment. Ultimately, the company plans to put the MON 87403 trait into its existing elite hybrids "to create commercial products with increased yield opportunity as well as protection against pests and tolerance to herbicides," Neu said.

Monsanto has petitioned APHIS to deregulate the new corn trait, and the agency has drafted an environmental assessment and initial plant pest risk assessment. Based on data supplied to agency from Monsanto, APHIS has come to the preliminary conclusion that "MON 87403 maize is unlikely to pose a plant pest risk," and is recommending deregulation.

You can find APHIS' preliminary environmental assessment and plant pest risk assessment of MON 87403 here: http://1.usa.gov/…, and comment on them here: http://1.usa.gov/….

Emily Unglesbee can be reached at emily.unglesbee@dtn.com

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Emily Unglesbee