Bionic leaf creates its own fertiliser to fuel new ‘green revolution’

Researchers have invented a new bionic leaf that uses bacteria, sunlight, water and air to make fertilizer in the very soil where crops are grown. It is hoped that the leaf will be able to serve a vital role in kickstarting a new ‘green revolution’ like that of the mid-20th century.

The first green revolution saw a massive increase in the use of fertiliser on new wheat and rice varieties, helping to double agricultural production. Though far from a perfect solution – the  increased use resulted in serious environmental damage – the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization have said that the move quite possibly saved millions of lives.

However, while it served at the time, a new green revolution is required. With the world’s population expected to grow by another 2 billion by 2050, a solution to boost production without having to clear masses more land for farming is urgently required.

A multi-pronged approach will be necessary, but the bionic leaf could play a vital role.

“When you have a large centralised process and a massive infrastructure, you can easily make and deliver fertiliser,” said Dr Daniel Nocera.

“But if I said that now you’ve got to do it in a village in India onsite with dirty water — forget it. Poorer countries in the emerging world don’t always have the resources to do this. We should be thinking of a distributed system because that’s where it’s really needed.”

Nocera is known for his previous work on artificial leaves turning sunlight into liquid fuel, which we reported on here, and is now looking to turn that expertise towards the creation of fertiliser.

Previous iterations of the leaf, when exposed to sunlight, paired a water-splitting catalyst with the bacteria Ralstonia eutropha, which consumes hydrogen and takes carbon dioxide out of the air to make liquid fuel.

Radishes grown with the self-fertilising bionic leaf, right, alongside those grown with conventional methods. Image courtesy of Nocera lab, Harvard University

Last June, Nocera’s bionic leaf even reached the point of providing biomass and liquid fuel yields that greatly exceeded those from natural photosynthesis. Now, by using Xanthobacter bacteria, the leaf can fix hydrogen from itself and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to make a bioplastic that the bacteria store inside themselves as fuel.

“I can then put the bug in the soil because it has already used the sunlight to make the bioplastic,” Nocera explained. “Then the bug pulls nitrogen from the air and uses the bioplastic, which is basically stored hydrogen, to drive the fixation cycle to make ammonia for fertilising crops.”

The research team have already tested the ammonia production of the system but have found real proof in growing radishes. Using the system to grow five crop cycles, they found that the vegetables receiving the bionic-leaf-derived fertilizer weigh 150 percent more than the control crops.

With this success behind them, Nocera has said that the next step is boosting throughput to get to the point where farmers in locations such as India or sub-Saharan Africa can produce their own fertiliser.

Eight-year study casts serious doubt on future food security

An extensive study designed to simulate the growing conditions of the future has cast significant doubt on widely held assumptions about the impact of climate change on food production, suggesting that we will face significant crop failures far sooner than previously thought.

The study, which is published today in the journal Nature Plants, saw researchers from the University of Illinois conduct an eight year-long study of soybeans that were grown outdoors in a carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere.  This was designed to mimic the higher atmospheric CO₂ concentrations that we are projected to experience by 2050.

It had been thought that the increased levels of CO₂ would balance future water shortages, by prompting the plans to reduce the size of the pores in their leaves and so reducing gaseous exchange with the atmosphere. This would reduce the amount of water the plants needed from the soil, resulting in crops that were only minimally affected by climate change.

“If you read the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and if you read the scientific literature on the subject for the last 30 years, the concluding statement is nearly always that elevated carbon dioxide will ameliorate drought stress in crops,” explained lead author Andrew Leakey, an associate professor of plant biology at the University of Illinois.

However, the study found a flaw in that premise, in that it only works in wetter growing seasons.

“[The theory] was consistent with what we saw with our own experiments the first four years, the relatively wet years,” added Leakey. “But when the growing seasons were hot and dry, that pattern broke down.”

The Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment facility, which allowed researchers to simulate the CO₂-rich environment of 2050. Image courtesy of Don Hamerman

The Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment facility, which allowed researchers to simulate the CO₂-rich environment of 2050. Image courtesy of Don Hamerman

The researchers created the CO₂-rich environment in real farm fields using a technology known as the Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment Facility. This featured sensors that that can measure wind speed and direction, prompting the regulated release of gases to simulate higher concentrations of CO₂.

This allowed the researchers to determine that plants grown in a hot, dry CO₂-rich environment needed more water than plants growing under the same conditions but with current atmospheric CO₂ levels; the opposite of what previous research had suggested.

“All of the model predictions up to this point were assuming that in 2050, elevated CO₂ was going to give us a 15% increase in yield over what we had at the beginning of this century,” Leakey said. “And what we’re seeing is that as it gets hotter and drier, that number diminishes to zero. No gain.

“What we think is happening is that early in the growing season, when the plant has enough water, it’s able to photosynthesize more as a result of the higher CO2 levels. It’s got more sugars to play with, it grows more, it creates all this extra leaf area. But when it gets dry, the plant has overextended itself, so later in the season it’s now using more water.”

soybean-crop

The research has significant implications for the management of food security in the future, with soybeans being the fourth biggest food crop in the world by area harvested.

In addition to providing a valuable source of protein for nonmeat eaters, they are used in a wide array of foods, oils and sauces, particularly in East Asia where the crop has formed a significant part of the diet since at least 7,000 BC.

Soybeans are also used extensively for livestock feed, making their importance for food security even greater.