John Innes Centre leading partner in new UK – Brazil Virtual Joint Centre

Professor Ray Dixon from the John Innes Centre will lead a team of scientists from the Universities of Oxford and Aberystwyth and leading research institutes in Brazil, to create a Virtual Joint Centre of research that will build on UK expertise in biological nitrogen fixation to enhance agricultural productivity in Brazil.

The goal is to understand and exploit beneficial interactions between plants and nitrogen fixing bacteria to develop a sustainable means of supplying nitrogen to crops. This would help to reduce the input of chemical fertilisers and the resulting release into the environment of reactive nitrogen.

The knowledge gained by the Joint Centre will enable the development and application of bio-fertilisers in Brazilian agriculture, which will lead to lower production costs and reduced environmental impacts.

The Centre is funded by the Newton Fund in the UK with matched resources from Brazil and will have the following objectives:

  1.  Engineer ammonium excretion in soil based nitrogen-fixing microbes
  2.   Isolate efficient growth-promoting, nitrogen fixing microbes, which have a symbiotic relationship with plants
  3.   Characterise plant-microbe interactions and identify genetic components required for efficient crop-microbe associations
  4.   Evaluate the effectiveness of new bio-fertilisers in field trials

The Virtual Joint Centre involves a partnership of four world-leading centres of plant and microbial research in the UK; the John Innes Centre, Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford, the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Science and the James Hutton Institute as a subcontractor.

With the exception of water, fixed nitrogen is the most common limiting factor for crop productivity. Nitrogenous fertilisers currently sustain an estimated 40% of the current world population and consume approximately 2% of the world’s annual energy supply.

Although the demand for fixed nitrogen can be met by chemical fertilisers, at present less than half the nitrogen used by farmers is assimilated by crops. Excess nitrogen leaks into ecosystems, leading to significant soil and water quality, biodiversity and atmospheric pollution.

Biological nitrogen fixation (BNF) provides a more sustainable alternative to the use of synthetic fertilisers.

The UK is renowned for its world-leading BNF research. UK researchers in this field have played crucial roles in uncovering fundamental mechanisms of gene regulation, understanding plant-microbe interactions and exploiting genomic sequencing technologies to probe dynamics of gene expression in microbial communities that live around the roots of plants.

The UK’s strengths are complemented by the excellent track record of Brazilian researchers in pioneering the application of model species for the study of nitrogen fixation by soil microbes and characterising the role of nitrogen fixing microbes in promoting the growth of crops.

Professor Ray Dixon said: “I am very pleased that the John Innes Centre has been chosen to lead the exciting new Virtual Joint Centre with Brazil. The benefits of this collaboration reach far beyond Brazil and the UK. It is essential that the world finds a sustainable alternative to chemical fertilisers, which improves take up of nitrogen by crops and helps to reduce the impact of agriculture on the environment. The development and use of new, cheaper bio-fertilisers could help produce more food in poorer nations and enable us to meet the zero hunger sustainable development goal, set by the UN”.

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