Genetically engineering cereal plants, such as wheat, oat, and corn, that have the capacity to thrive without the need for expensive and environmentally harmful fertilizers could help lessen the world’s hunger problem, according to an international research team.

Biological nitrogen fixation is the process by which certain bacteria convert inert nitrogen gas to a form that can be readily used to sustain cellular metabolism. The availability of fixed nitrogen is widely recognized as the most significant factor that limits food production. The research team is now attempting to transfer genes that encode the capacity for nitrogen fixation, found only in certain types of bacteria, to cereal plants.  Currently, cereal plants rely on the application of expensive, environmentally damaging fertilizers to provide the fixed nitrogen necessary to sustain and maximize their growth.

Virginia Tech biochemist Dennis Dean recently joined the project, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and headed by Luis Rubio, a biochemist at the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid.

“Even though the dream to make self-fertilizing plants has probably been biotechnology’s greatest failure, new methods of gene assembly and transfer, together with an emerging knowledge of the catalytic mechanism and assembly of nitrogen-fixing systems, makes this a particularly good time to revisit this grand challenge,” said Dean, the university’s Stroobants Professor of Biotechnology and a University Distinguished Professor.

Dean, who is also the director of the Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech, has more than 30 years of research experience in biological nitrogen fixation, specifically in the assembly of complex and simple iron-sulfur clusters.  Effective assembly and insertion of these highly oxygen-sensitive clusters is required to activate the capacity for biological nitrogen fixation.

“After many years of admiring Dean's work, I am thrilled to work with him on a crucial project,” said Rubio. “Professor Dean's ingenuity, experience, and knowledge in nitrogenase assembly and biochemistry is unmatched among active scientists.”

Other scientists on the project include Elena Caro from the Center for Biotechnology and Plant Genomics of the Universidad Politecnica de Madrid; Paul Christo from the department of plant production and forest service of the University of Lleida; Leonardo Curatti from the Fundacion para Investigatciones Biologicas Aplicadas; and Christopher Voigt from the department of biological engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“I am particularly looking forward to working with this consortium, as the investigators are not only first-class scientists but have also been close scientific friends over the last couple of decades,” said Dean.

About 795 million people — 1 in 9 people on Earth — do not have enough food for a healthy lifestyle, with the majority of those living in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, according to the World Food Programme.

The cost of chemical fertilizers is prohibitively expensive for small farmers in these regions, resulting in very low yields of crops and widespread poverty and hunger.

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