Spring 2022


Detail of mucilage exuded from the aerial roots of a nitrogen-fixing corn variety being grown at West Madison Agricultural Research Station. Photo by Michael P. King


In the fall 2020 issue of Grow, Eric Hamilton highlighted a team of CALS scientists and their search for alternatives to synthetic crop fertilizers. The group is studying a possible substitute found in a variety of corn that indigenous Oaxacan communities have cultivated for centuries. The corn’s aerial roots exude a viscous, slime-like gel, and the gel hosts bacteria that “fix” nitrogen (i.e., convert it into a usable form for plants). Preliminary experiments suggest that approximately 10% of these bacteria help the corn fix 30–80% of its nitrogen.

To identify what the remaining 90% of the bacteria do, and to improve nitrogen fixation in other plants, one of the scientists, agronomy and bacteriology professor Jean-Michel Ané, has teamed up with Ophelia Venturelli, assistant professor of biochemistry. Venturelli’s team aims to use computational modeling to identify microbial properties important to nitrogen fixation that scientists might not discover through less targeted approaches. They will also study nitrogen-fixing behavior in the lab by introducing different bacteria into microbial communities and observing microbe-to-microbe interactions.

Venturelli’s team will apply these tuned microbial blends to both cross-bred and native crop varieties. In the future, farmers may see a shift toward fertilizers with gel-based sources of nitrogen.

This article was posted in Basic Science, Follow-Up, Food Systems, Healthy Ecosystems, Spring 2022 and tagged , , , , , , , , , , .