The John Innes Centre is to lead on a £6.4m research project into whether cereals can be genetically engineered to nitrogen fix in a similar way to peas and beans.
The new research will investigate the possibility of engineering cereals to associate with nitrogen-fixing bacteria and of delivering this technology through the seed.
Scientists will start by attempting to engineer in maize the ability to sense nitrogen-fixing soil bacteria. But is believed that any discoveries will be applicable to all cereal crops including wheat, barley and rice.
“We have developed a pretty good understanding of how legumes such as peas and beans evolved the ability to recruit soil bacteria to access the nitrogen they need,” said Professor Oldroyd from JIC.
”Even the most primitive symbiotic relationship with bacteria benefited the plant, and this is where we hope to start in cereals.”
It is anticipated the five-year research project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, could have most immediate benefit for subsistence farmers.
“During the Green Revolution, nitrogen fertilisers helped triple cereal yields in some areas,” said Professor Oldroyd “But these chemicals are unaffordable for small-scale farmers in the developing world.”
As a result, yields are 15 to 20 per cent of their potential.
“A new method of nitrogen fertilisation is needed for the African Green Revolution,” he said.