The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world’s largest charitable funds, aim to “help all people lead healthy, productive lives”. This is brought about by astronomic sized donations ($2.6 billion in 2010) to a variety of healthcare interventions, educational initiatives, scientific projects, and help for those in extreme poverty.
One of their latest funding projects is a $9,872,613 research grant, designed to last 5 years and a month, awarded to the John Innes Centre. (That’s about £6.34 million at today’s exchange rate). The JIC is another of the BBSRCs ‘research institutes’, like Rothamsted. This essentially means that they can do all the research that universities do, without any pesky undergrads running around wanting to be taught how to hold a pipette.
The project will research the feasibility of producing cereal crops (probably wheat and barley) that are capable of fixing their own nitrogen. Plants need nitrogen in order to produce amino acids, and therefore protein: including chlorophyll, which is what makes plants green and allows them to photosynthesise. Without nitrogen, plants are yellow and stunted – because they can’t harness the sun’s energy as sugar. They’re essentially a bit useless. During the Green Revolution, when industrial fertilisers (as opposed to cow manure) came into common usage, yields became up to three times what they originally were. But the sort of small scale farmers that the JIC project is designed to help (specifically those in sub-Saharan Africa) are not able to afford the huge quantities of fertiliser that their crops need.
This is where the idea of crop rotations arose. Certain plants such as the legumes (peas and beans) are able to survive without the application of any external nitrogen-rich fertiliser. This is because they have a symbiotic relationhip with a ‘nitrogen-fixing’ bacterium called Rhizobia, which can capture nitrogen from the air and turn it into compounds like ammonia, which are solid and can dissolve in soil water.
If nitrogen-fixing maize could be produced, this would allow maize farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to grow higher yielding crops without needing to spend so much money on external fertiliser, or leave fields to fallow every few years.
It will be a long project. The aim is to get the same bacteria that populate legume plants to form an association with the cereal. Step 1 is in getting the cereal to even recognise the presence of the bacteria! If the maize plant can sense that the bacteria are there, it can begin to produce a simple swelling in which the bacteria can ‘live’. From there, evolution should theoretically do the rest…