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Collaborative Success Stories: Out of Thin Air


University of Missouri scientists have developed a new model to study how a naturally occurring bacteria could “feed” plants from atmospheric nutrients.

American farmers spend billons every year to fertilize their crops with nitrogen. Not only is fertilizer is expensive, but runoff from nitrogen-rich fields pollutes rivers and have been linked to health concerns including diabetes and cancer. Now, MU researchers have developed a model grass plant to study how crops like corn can rely on bacteria to provide the necessary nitrogen.

Plants scientist Gary Stacey and post-doctoral fellow Fernanda Amaral transplanted grass seedlings into soil that contained no nutrients. They introduced bacteria known to convert atmospheric nitrogen into a compound usable by plants—a process that has been demonstrated in legumes, but is not well understood in grass plants. The pair examined three different bacteria and more than 30 plant genomes before identifying the most potent combination. Using radioisotopes to trace the intake of nutrients, they were able to prove that bacteria met 100 percent of the plants’ nitrogen needs.

The scientists’ findings open an exciting new door. Further research into the relationship between bacteria and grass crops like corn and rice could lead to a plant-friendly way to promote safer, more sustainable agriculture.

Dr. Gary Stacey is a researcher in Bond Life Sciences Center and an Endowed Professor in MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.

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Related Initiative(s):
Food for the Future