Vânia Pankievicz believes nitrogen-fixing corn could be available as soon as 10 years from now.
By Melanie Epp
April 2, 2019 - Nitrogen is a major limiting nutrient for crop growth, which means many crops require high inputs in order to reach high yields. While nitrogen has a significant impact on the environment, not only is biological nitrogen fixation is safe for the environment, it may also be possible sooner than expected. University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher Vânia Pankievicz spoke on the subject at this year’s Innovative Farmers Association of Ontario (IFAO) conference, leaving attendees excited about its potential.
Research began ten years ago when agronomist Howard-Yana Shapiro, in collaboration with Mars Incorporation, went to Mexico to investigate landraces of maize. Pankievicz joined the project just last year.
At the time it was thought that indigenous landraces of maize grown in isolated regions of Mexico could have co- evolved with microbiomes that assist plant performance by responding to abiotic stresses, such as nutrient deficiency.
“In cereals, we don’t have such nodule formation, so we rely on different types of bacteria to naturally provide nitrogen to the crop,” she said.
With the indigenous landrace, though, mucilage on the corn creates a special environment where unique bacteria, called diazotrophs, fix atmospheric nitrogen that is then transferred to the crop.
“The natural systems used by corn to obtain nitrogen from the environment are simple and efficient,” said Pankievicz. “The conditions for nitrogen fixation are what the research already knew to be necessary – low nitrogen and oxygen and high sugar contents – but haven’t thought that nature or the aerial roots could itself promote it.”
Pankievicz believes it is possible to transfer the nitrogen fixation trait through classical breeding, allowing breeders to introgress the trait into already proven varieties. Farmers probably won’t see the technology for another 10 years at least, though, she said.
The development of nitrogen fixation in maize could be of enormous economic value, since nitrogen fertilization is one of the highest costs of corn production.
“This is pretty revolutionary for the nitrogen fixation research field since it opens new perspectives to how we look for solutions in terms of decreasing the amount of nitrogen fertilizer applied to crops,” she concluded.