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Cambridge co-ordinated research could save wetlands and aid world food security

A global research programme co-ordinated from Cambridge that could help address the world’s looming food security crisis and protect sensitive natural ecosystems like the Fens and Norfolk Broads will form the subject of a free public talk on Tuesday night (March 12).

The talk, part of the Cambridge Science Festival, will be delivered by Dr Giles Oldroyd, who leads the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation project, Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA), which aims to double crop yields for small-holder farmers in Africa without the use of expensive artificial fertilisers.

To do this, Dr Oldroyd co-ordinates 12 research teams from across the world who are working together to transfer the natural nitrogen-fixing capabilities of legumes like peas into cereal crops.

Giles Oldroyd (7691653)
Giles Oldroyd (7691653)

If successful, this could also reduce the world’s overall use of nitrogen fertilisers, which contribute significantly to global warming gases and environmental pollution and have benefits for the iconic Fenlands and Norfolk Broads that sit side-by-side with intensive agriculture.

Dr Oldroyd said: “Low lying water based nature reserves in the Fenlands and Norfolk Broads, such as Wicken Fen, are heavily impacted by agricultural nutrient run off. These ecosystems are naturally low in nutrients and this is essential for these sites to support biodiversity, as such these habitats are very sensitive to agricultural nutrient run-off, but it’s very difficult to keep it out.”

One of the major factors that limits crop growth is nitrogen. Despite nitrogen making up almost 80 per cent of the air that we breathe, none of this is available to our cereal crops, which is why the nitrogen fertiliser industry is such big business.

However, legume plants like peas and beans, have come up with a clever solution to capture this atmospheric nitrogen by teaming up with bacteria.

Dr Oldroyd added: “Legume plants and bacteria form beneficial relationships, with the plant providing ‘bed and board’ to the bacteria, in return for nitrogen-fixation. This process in legumes has utilised many genetic components that evolved to support a much more ancient association with beneficial fungi, that is already present in cereal crops. We are identifying what genes are specifically involved in nitrogen-fixation in legumes and using these in combination with the native gene networks already present in cereals to create cereal crops that can fix their own fertiliser.”

Dr Oldroyd’s talk will be held at 7pm on Tuesday, March 12 at the Sainsbury Laboratory auditorium located in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden (entrance at 47 Bateman St). Booking is required online via the Cambridge Science Festival website.

The Cambridge Independent is proud to support the 2019 Cambridge Science Festival.

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