Research brings microbial-level nitrogen products to the field

With several products in their first years of commercialization and more on the way, ag research is edging its way toward an elusive goal—harnessing the relationships between microbes and plants to help fertilize crops.

The quest is as old as agriculture itself. Research coming to fruition today could mark a significant moment for the industry— especially if you think about it from a historical perspective.

Before we reached the modern age of agriculture, humans spent millennia selecting and improving grain for its domestic utility in feeding ourselves and livestock. Humanity had done pretty well for itself, too. We’d done the selection work. We’d figured out that manure was good fertilizer. We’d learned about green manures and crop rotation. But even with all that time-earned agricultural wisdom, pushing yield with fertility had hit a plateau.

Of course, that changed in the early 1900s when German sci­entists Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch developed the industrial pro­cess for converting atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia—a pivotal moment and a foundation for the agricultural output we enjoy today. And while commercial nitrogen produced from this pro­cess will remain a foundation of fertility programs, the new focus can be traced back a few decades before Haber and Bosch made their discovery to another pair of Germans, Hermann Hellriegel and Hermann Wilfarth, whose research focused on how plants fix nitrogen for themselves.

In the 1880s, Hellriegel and Wilfarth explained how inoculum of suitable species and variety promoted root nodules on legumes. These nodules, through symbiotic activity among plants and soil organisms, fed the target plants nitrogen and helped them grow. It was a controversial suggestion at the time.

Such early research and discovery may seem quaint by modern standards. Still, it provided the foundation that is being built upon by today’s technology, from advanced screening for beneficial microbes to gene editing and genom­ic work to identify and proliferate the biological interactions needed for bacteria and plants to work together.

What’s coming to the agricultural marketplace has been derived from multiple methods and approaches but collec­tively uses activity from soil microbes and plants to attain nitrogen.

In a meta sense, you can sometimes measure the general advance of technology by merger, acquisition and licens­ing activity in the sector. Capital seeks innovation, and innovation seeks capital. In the past few years, announce­ments from multiple companies signal progress in the field. Aligning with that process is continued scrutiny on nitrogen production regarding the energy used to produce it and its environmental fate once applied. Addressing those issues without sacrificing yield will push development all the more.

MFA is in the early stages of evaluating these types of microbial products. This year’s research will focus on rate equivalents of nitrogen provided.

While the field is growing, some of the available products include:

Corteva Utrisha N (foliar application)

Corteva Agriscience recently announced an agreement with micro-biologically focused Symborg to bring microbe-based nitrogen fixation products to market in the United States, Canada, Brazil and Argentina.

The agreement gives Corteva an exclusive license to distribute the endophytic bacterium, Methylobacterium symbioticum, which works with the plant to secure needed nitrogen from the atmosphere. You will see the product branded as Utrisha N.

PivotBio PROVEN (in-furrow)

Pivot Bio PROVEN is applied in-furrow during planting. The mi­crobes create a symbiotic relationship with the corn plant, produce nitrogen and deliver it directly to the roots of the corn plant.

Azotic Envita (in-furrow, foliar application, seed inoculant)

Envita is a naturally occurring, food-grade bacteria—Gluconaceto­bacter diazotrophicus—that was initially discovered in sugarcane. Envita forms a beneficial relationship with the host plant and pro­vides nitrogen to cells throughout the plant, both above and below ground, all season long.

Sound Agriculture Source (foliar application)

This chemistry activates hormones in the plant to produce a gel-like substance from the root that stimulates existing soil bacteria to fix nitrogen and make phosphorus more available.

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