Managing the microbes - the key to solving the global nitrogen crisis

04 Dec 2017 13:21:03.100

PA 276/17

Experts from the UK and Brazil have joined forces to address the challenges and opportunities for agricultural nitrogen science in Florianopolis, Brazil.

In the first meeting of its kind 24 leading experts from the UK and Brazil came together to find practical, low cost solutions that make more effective use of nitrogen (N) inputs in agriculture, while attempting to decrease N pollution losses to the environment either to the atmosphere or through the soil.

NUCLEUS led by Sacha Mooney, Professor of Soil Physics in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham and UBNFC led by Ray Dixon, Professor of Molecular Microbiology at the John Innes Centre focus on improving nitrogen use efficiency from both the agronomic and biological perspectives. The workshop was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC) via the Newton Fund.

Click here for full story

Professor Mooney said: “While our two centres are following different approaches, the potential synergies are clear. In NUCLEUS we have shown that combinations of natural soil amendments and leguminous trees planted between crops have the capacity to provide similar quantities of nitrogen to that from artificial fertilizers. For important non-leguminous crops like maize and rice, UBNFC are isolating second generation bacterial inoculants that have great potential for supplying fixed N to plants when added to soil – although this is yet to be tested in the field.”

“We have developed new plans to exchange ideas and scientists in the coming year to test this combination of approaches. We are all really excited by the potential this offers.”

The problem 

Explaining the problem of managing nitrogen in Brazil, Professor Ciro Rosolem from São Paulo State University and NUCLEUS lead in Brazil said: “Most tropical, weathered soils have low mineral N, and the introduction of legumes in crop rotation is one way to naturally increase soil N. However, heavy rainfall on fragile, tropical soils can lead to significant losses of N by leaching through the soil. The NUCLEUS project is seeking to understand which crop species are best at scavenging N from deeper in the soil and recycle it for the next crop, thus reducing the need for fertilizer inputs and improving nitrogen use efficiency.”

UBNFC is pioneering an alternative approach — biological nitrogen fixation (BNF). Professor Emanuel de Souza from the Federal University of Paraná and UBNFC lead in Brazil said: “We are using nitrogen-fixing bacteria as a sustainable source of fixed N. We believe this approach also has the potential to significantly reduce the input of chemical fertilisers in agriculture and mitigate the environmental and economic impacts of reactive nitrogen pollution.”

Mitigating the impact of nitrogen fertilisers

The meeting revealed the overlapping goals of the two research centres and identified several opportunities for collaboration that will develop the scientific and practical outcomes of the research for the benefit of Brazilian and UK agriculture.

Professor Dixon said: “We are very grateful to the BBSRC for supporting this meeting to explore synergies between the two UK-Brazil virtual joint centres on agricultural nitrogen. The outcome of our discussions has uncovered exciting new opportunities to mitigate the impact of nitrogen fertilisers on the environment and increase agricultural productivity in Brazil through enhanced use of biological nitrogen fixation and improved agronomic practices.”

The British partners for NUCLEUS are the University of Nottingham (including scientists from the Schools of Biosciences and Geography), the University of Aberdeen, Rothamsted Research, and Bangor University. Partners in Brazil include São Paulo State University, the University of São Paulo, the University of Western São Paulo, the Agronomic Institute of Campinas, Embrapa Rice and Beans, the Goiano Federal Institute, the Federal University of Goias and Maranhao Federal University.

The UK partners for UBNFC are the John Innes Centre, the University of Oxford, Aberystwyth University and the James Hutton Institute. Our Brazilian partners include the Federal University of Paraná, Embrapa Agrobiology, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the State University of Norte Fluminense and the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

NUCLEUS and UBNFC are funded by BBRSC in the UK and in Brazil via FAPESP (NUCLEUS)  and CONFAP (Fundação Araucária - UBNFC; FAPEG and FAPEM - NUCLEUS).

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Sacha Mooney, in the School of Biosciences at the University of Nottingham on +44 (0)115 951 6257,
Lindsay Brooke

Lindsay Brooke - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5751 Location: University Park

Additional resources

No additional resources for this article

Related articles

Media Relations - External Relations

The University of Nottingham
YANG Fujia Building
Jubilee Campus
Wollaton Road
Nottingham, NG8 1BB

telephone: +44 (0) 115 951 5798