Soybean nitrogen breakthrough could feed the world

A new soybean nitrogen breakthrough could help solve global food shortages while protecting the environment. The development dramatically increases the yield and quality of soybeans.

A biologist from Washington State University has developed a way to dramatically increase the yield and quality of soybeans.

Mechthild Tegeder’s greenhouse-grown soybean plants can convert twice as much nitrogen from the atmosphere as their natural counterparts. They can also grow bigger and produce up to 36 per cent more seeds.

The finding is a major breakthrough in the science of improving crop yields. It could one day help address the critical challenge of feeding a growing human population while protecting the environment.

“The biggest implication of our research is that by ramping up the natural nitrogen allocation process we can increase the amount of food we produce without contributing to further agricultural pollution,” Tegeder explained in a statement.

Tegeder and her colleagues designed a novel way to increase the flow of nitrogen from specialised bacteria in soybean root nodules to the seed-producing organs. The development revealed that the increased rate of nitrogen transport kicked the plants into overdrive.

“Eventually we would like to transfer what we have learned to other legumes and plants that humans grow for food,” added Tegeder.

Unlike crops that rely on naturally occurring and artificially made nitrogen from the soil, legumes, which account for 30 per cent of the world’s agricultural production, contain rhizobia bacterioids in their root nodules. These bacterioids can convert nitrogen gas from the atmosphere.

One major benefit of growing legumes such as chickpeas and common beans is that they can both use atmospheric nitrogen for their own growth and leave residual nitrogen in the soil for subsequent crops.

This means that increasing nitrogen fixation could improve overall plant productivity for farmers who grow legumes in both industrial and developing countries, while diminishing or eliminating the need for nitrogen fertilisers – thus helping protect the environment.

Photo credit: University of Delaware Carvel REC/ CC BY 2.0

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