Researchers from Michigan State University and Imperial College London have just received $1.87 million in funding to conduct a treasure hunt. It will take them from Germany to Hawaii in the US and elsewhere, in search of the smallest needle—a particular type of bacteria—in a haystack the size of the globe. If it pays off, it could contribute to lowering the world’s reliance on toxic—and expensive—fertilizer, replacing it with bacteria.
Making fertilizer is dangerous as April’s explosion at a factory in West, Texas demonstrated. And its use is catastrophic for the environment for reasons ranging from increased methane emissions to run-off contaminating water supplies. The bacteria project is one of three being funded by the US National Science Foundation and Britain’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. With a total of $8.86 million of funding, the groups are hoping the three projects will boost crop yields while reducing the need for fertilizers. At the root of all three projects is the process of “fixing” nitrogen, or converting it to ammonia, a compound that helps plants grow. There is plenty of nitrogen in the atmosphere but it doesn’t convert into ammonia in an oxygen-rich environment like ours.