Root nodules in a legume plant containing nitrogen-fixing rhizobia. (Photo: Terraprima, Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)
Legumes are an important part of a balanced diet for billions of people around the world. A new and improved soybean plant may hold the key to greater food production without chemical fertilizers. Living on Earth’s Alexander Metzger discusses the botanical breakthrough in this week’s Note on Emerging Science.
CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood. In a moment, the blobs that are taking over the oceans. But first, here’s this week’s Note on Emerging Science from Alex Metzger.
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METZGER: Legumes -- foods like beans, peas and lentils - are among the oldest cultivated plants on earth. Their historical roots date back 5,000 years to Mesopotamia, the birthplace of agriculture. These crops are packed with protein, fiber and other nutrients and currently account for 30 percent of the world’s agricultural production.
They also enrich the soil by converting nitrogen from the atmosphere into a form plants can use through a symbiotic relationship with root bacteria known as “rhizobia.” So many organic and conservation-minded farmers plant legumes instead of adding synthetic fertilizers to their fields.
This nitrogen-fixing ability is the basis of a recent scientific breakthrough. Researchers at Washington State University have doubled the growth of soybean plants. They genetically modified the plants to absorb nitrogen faster, and so triggered rhizobia in the roots to fix more nitrogen. This chain reaction created bigger, healthier plants that produced more seed. There was also evidence that these modified plants could be more efficient in drought conditions.
The researchers hope that this breakthrough could increase global food supply while cutting down on harmful synthetic fertilizers, and make for the best of both worlds: a better fed population and a healthier environment.
That’s this week’s note on emerging science: I’m Alexander Metzger.
CURWOOD: And by the way, in case you are wondering, those new soybeans were not modified to make them resistant to pesticides.
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