As the world population grows, one terrific science and technology solution to expensive and environmentally damaging fertilizers would be enabling all of the world's crops to take nitrogen from the air.

Nitrate pollution is a major problem as is the pollution of the atmosphere by ammonia and oxides of nitrogen. In addition, nitrate pollution is a health hazard and also causes oxygen-depleted 'dead zones' in our waterways and oceans. A recent study estimates that that the annual cost of damage caused by nitrogen pollution across Europe is between £60 billion and £280 billion per year. 

A method for putting nitrogen-fixing bacteria into the cells of plant roots, bypassing the need for fertilizer, is ideal - and it may be ready soon. Though it is neither genetic modification nor bio-engineering, there will be objections about FrankenAir at first, but it's a good idea. Nitrogen fixation, the process by which nitrogen is converted to ammonia, is vital for plants to survive and grow. A small number of plants, most notably legumes (such as peas, beans and lentils) already have the ability to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere with the help of nitrogen fixing bacteria but the vast majority of plants have to obtain nitrogen from the soil. For most crops currently being grown across the world, this also means a reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. There would seem to be a happy solution to that problem and Professor Edward Cocking, Director of The University of Nottingham's Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation, may have it in what he calls 'N-Fix'.

Cocking found a specific strain of nitrogen-fixing bacteria in sugar-cane, which he discovered could intracellularly colonize all major crop plants. This potentially provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen. Since this can provide much of the plant's nitrogen needs, the implications for agriculture are enormous.

Speaking about N-Fix, Cocking said, "Helping plants to naturally obtain the nitrogen they need is a key aspect of World Food Security. The world needs to unhook itself from its ever increasing reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilisers produced from fossil fuels with its high economic costs, its pollution of the environment and its high energy costs."  

N-Fix is a naturally occurring nitrogen fixing bacteria which takes up and uses nitrogen from the air. Applied to the cells of plants (intra-cellular) via the seed, it provides every cell in the plant with the ability to fix nitrogen. Plant seeds are coated with these bacteria in order to create a symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationship and naturally produce nitrogen. 

Professor Cocking in the growth room. Credit: The University of Nottingham

N-Fix is a natural nitrogen seed coating that provides a sustainable solution to fertilizer overuse and Nitrogen pollution. It is environmentally friendly and can be applied to all crops. Over the last 10 years, The University of Nottingham has conducted a series of extensive research programs which have established proof of principal of the technology in the laboratory, growth rooms and glasshouses.    

Dr Susan Huxtable, Director of Intellectual Property Commercialisation at The University of Nottingham, believes that the N-Fix technology has significant implications for agriculture, she said: "There is a substantial global market for the N-Fix technology, as it can be applied globally to all crops. N-Fix has the power to transform agriculture, while at the same time offering a significant cost benefit to the grower through the savings that they will make in the reduced costs of fertilisers. It is a great example of how University research can have a world-changing impact."

The N-Fix technology has been licensed by The University of Nottingham to Azotic Technologies Ltd to develop and commercialise N-Fix globally on its behalf for all crop species.

Peter Blezard, CEO of Azotic Technologies added, "Agriculture has to change and N-Fix can make a real and positive contribution to that change. It has enormous potential to help feed more people in many of the poorer parts of the world, while at the same time, dramatically reducing the amount of synthetic nitrogen produced in the world."

The proof of concept has already been demonstrated. The uptake and fixation of nitrogen in a range of crop species has been proven to work in the laboratory and Azotic is now working on field trials in order to produce robust efficacy data. This will be followed by seeking regulatory approval for N-Fix initially in the UK, Europe, USA, Canada and Brazil, with more countries to follow.

It is anticipated that the N-Fix technology will be commercially available within the next two to three years.