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Nitrogen fixation engineering in cereal crops moves a step closer

Date: 19.9.2018 

One of the major factors that limit crop growth is the availability of nitrogen, but only bacteria and other single-celled microbes called archaea can take nitrogen from the air and fix it into a form that can be used by plants. The process carried out by these microbes is known as biological nitrogen fixation. 
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Legumes obtain nitrogen from symbiotic nitrogen-fixing bacteria, but cereal crops including wheat and maize, rely on the availability of fixed nitrogen in the soil. In many cases the addition of chemical fertilisers is the only way to provide crops with enough nitrogen to ensure a good harvest.

The use of nitrogen fertilisers releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas which is 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. By engineering crops to fix their own nitrogen, we hope to reduce the use of nitrogen fertilisers, thus mitigating their impact on the environment. A break though like this could also have worldwide implications for cereal crop productivity.

In this paper, the research team has been able to engineer nitrogen fixation by employing a novel strategy, which simplifies the process of engineering multiple genes to make sure their expression is balanced in their new host. Nitrogen fixation is an intricate and delicate process which requires a balance of numerous key components. Until now, achieving the right balance of these components has been a major challenge to the engineering of nitrogen fixation in cereal crops.

The new method works by organising large numbers of genes which are required for nitrogen fixation into a smaller number of "giant genes". These are then expressed in the host cell as huge proteins known as "polyproteins" which are subsequently cut by a specific protease enzyme to release the individual nitrogen fixation components.

 


 

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