Project seeks to crack the code

Headshot of Rourke Walsh
Rourke WalshCountryman

A $10 million project underway at Murdoch University could help farmers fight rising fertiliser costs.

The project, a joint venture between Australian and US researchers, will aim to decipher the genetic code for 100 different rhizobial strains to boost the natural sources of nitrogen in agricultural systems.

Rhizobia are soil bacteria that produce nitrogen inside nodules formed on the roots of legume species such as peas, beans or clovers.

If successful, the boost in natural nitrogen levels will reduce the reliance on fossil fuel-based fertilisers.

The Centre for Rhizobium Studies, the Australian side of the project led by Dr Wayne Reeve, has the task of sequencing the genomes of rhizobia selected from distinct geographic regions across the globe.

The US side of the project will be run at the Joint Genome Institute, led by head of the microbial program Dr Nikos Kyrpides.

Dr Reeve said this was the first large-scale attempt to unravel the complexities of how genetics and environmental factors contributed to the success of rhizobia with legume crops and pastures.

“To put our project in perspective, we will be generating twice the amount of sequence information generated from the human genome sequence project, ” Dr Reeve said.

“The aim is to complete these bacterial genomes and then relate this wealth of information to the environment and discover traits for competitiveness, legume compatibility and efficiency of nitrogen fixation.”

Improving symbiotic nitrogen fixation in agricultural settings will have significant benefits for the environment, since a huge amount of fossil fuel is required to produce fertilisers. Runoff of artificially applied nitrogen can also pollute waterways. The process has the potential to reduce the application of manufactured nitrogen fertiliser by up to 160 million tonnes a year. This equates to a reduction of 270 million tonnes of coal.

Dr Reeve said while the project would most likely not increase yields, it would benefit farmers.

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